We take a look at this lesser-known operatic masterpiece, being brought to us by English Touring Opera in May.
Iphigénie en Tauride was written by the German composer Gluck – although despite his nationality, the opera was written in French (the ETO version has English surtitles) – and premiered in Paris in 1779.
This opera tells the story of a meeting between Iphigenia and Orestes, the daughter and son of the Greek leader Agamemnon, in the aftermath of the great conflict of the Trojan War. At the beginning of the conflict, the Greeks were prevented from setting off for Troy by unfavourable winds – to persuade the gods to change the wind direction, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In some versions of the myth, Diana, the goddess of the moon (in Greek mythology she’s called Artemis; Gluck uses the Roman version of her name) takes pity on the girl, and snatches her away before she can be killed.
Gluck’s take begins years later, after the long war and the fall of Troy. Iphigenia has become a priestess of Diana on the island of Tauris. According to local custom, she must sacrifice anyone washed up upon the island’s shores to the goddess.
It’s a touch inconvenient then, that her brother Orestes, and his friend Pylades are shipwrecked on Tauris. Orestes is in trouble with the gods for killing his mother (OK, this is a touch complicated, but bear with me: after the departure of Agamemnon for Troy, his wife Clytemnestra, justifiably annoyed with him for sacrificing their daughter, embarked on an affair with his brother. On Agamemnon’s return from Troy, Clytemnestra and her lover murdered him. Orestes then killed both of them in revenge for his father’s death. Phew!). Being tormented by the gods, Orestes is trying to retrieve the statue of Diana from their temple, and return it to Greece to appease them.
The siblings, who have not seen each other for many years, do not immediately recognise each other, although both think the other seems familiar.
Will Iphigenia kill her brother? Can Orestes survive and appease the gods? I’m not going to give the ending away, but (small spoiler alert) it takes a visit from the goddess Diana herself to sort out affairs among the mortals.
That’s the story – what about the music? Well, quite a lot of it was borrowed by Gluck from other works – mainly earlier, less successful works of his own, but in the case of the aria Je t’implore et je tremble (sung by Iphigenia when she is preparing to sacrifice Orestes, asking the goddess for help with this dreadful task), apparently from the great Johan Sebastian Bach.
Borrowed or not, although Gluck’s opera is rarely performed, it’s still regarded as a masterpiece. The Independent describes it as having ‘sublime beauty’ which is ‘splendidly honoured’ by this new ETO production, while the Guardian’s five-star review of the production said “It’s a remarkable piece of music theatre that arouses pity and terror – as classical tragedy always should.”
ETO will perform Iphigénie en Tauride on Saturday 7 May. You can book here.