Falling into a dream
09/30/2004 - and 2 October 2004
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
Ann Murray (Iphigénie), Andrew Schroeder (Oreste), Paul Nilon (Pylade), David Kempster (Thoas), Camilla Roberts (Diana)
Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus
Michael Hofstetter (conductor), Jean-Michel Criqui (revival director)
Euripides' play Iphigenia in Tauris, an "alternative history" like his Helen in Egypt and probably cut from the whole cloth, is one of the best made of ancient tragedies. Aristotle in his Poetics regards it as a exemplar of plotting, on a par with Oedipus the King, and in a production in the Athens Festival some years ago, played as a very black comedy, the recognition between long-lost brother and sister had the audience in the massive Herodes Atticus theatre on their feet and cheering. Yet the amazing structure of the play contains and controls perhaps the most terrifying fear of all, the anxiety about what keeps us civilized. It is not so much Iphigenia's ritual sacrifice of strangers that is horrific as the fact the she is a Greek (someone like the audience of the drama) who can be compelled to perform the culturally abhorrent murderous betrayal of the laws of hospitality.
Gluck and his librettist Guillard discard the ultimate horror, that the ritual sacrifice is simply Taurian custom and there is apparently nothing in human nature to prevent it, and they motivate it by the paranoia of Thoas, the king of Tauris. They also introduce the powerful love between Orestes, deranged with guilt for murdering his mother in vengeance for her murder of his father, and his patient friend Pylades, thus allowing for further twists of the plot as each friend tries to sacrifice himself for the other, but also creating a sense of human nobility amid the contagious bloodshed. The opera is as well made as the play, and its music a tour de force of maximum effects from minimal resources, but it is definitely a product of the Enlightenment: Iphigénie en Tauride regards humanity as improvable even if individuals suffer in the process, whereas Iphigenia in Tauris, written as Athenian civilization seems to be crumbling in the aftermath of the Peloponessian war, looks into the abyss. Perhaps Gluck had already plumbed the depths with his Iphigénie en Aulide, where the motivation of the sacrifice is never clear and the outcome chaotic, and did not feel the need to revisit them.
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the original directors of the 1992 WNO production, seem to have taken the classical status of Gluck's opera extremely seriously, and stripped it not only of any historical context or contemporary resonance, but also of anything at all superfluous or decorative. The sets are characterless and grey, as are the costumes, and emotions are conveyed purely by the gestures of the singers and chorus, with huddling Greek women and serried soldiers. Jean-Michel Criqui's revival (seen on 2 October, the WNO's last performance in the jewel-box New Theatre before its move to the Millennium Centre) was decorous, if at times strikingly lacking in content, and left the singers and orchestra under Michael Hofstetter to perform the work. Ann Murray's Iphigénie in particular was engagingly intense and musically powerful, but even her magnificent performance left little sense of what the opera was about beyond general human misery. David Kempster, in glorious voice as the xenophobe Thoas, was likewise musical but short of context: there was no obvious sense of his fear of outsiders, although it is surely at the heart of any modern response to the plot, whose key point is that the stranger we are obliged to hate by convention or because of the perceived interests of national security could be an unrecognized brother.
Andrew Scroeder's Oreste was anguished in traditional style, although the glacial Furies with their almost indiscernible faces would have scared anybody, and he wasn't particularly vulnerable. Paul Nilon as Pylade sang beautifully and was very moving, bringing the possibility of unconstrained love and generosity into a plot built around fear and the bonds of kinship.
Perhaps this revival (on tour in the UK until December) has been unlucky in its timing. In 1992, the production must have looked timeless and refreshingly free of Cold-War critiques of fascism. In 2004, the fragility of civilization is as immediate as it has ever been for anyone who does not remember the second world war: the rule of law is threatened both by the undeniably real possibly of terrorist attacks but also by the actions of governments against terrorists. Euripides might well have understood, but a production of Gluck's opera that respects its classicism inevitably falls short of the agony that appears on the news every night.