Hellenic Ideal

Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride demands a sensitive and charismatic singing actor for its heroine. Enter Susan Graham, who took on the title role in Stephen Wadsworth’s powerful staging. By Stacey Kors

After nearly a century of neglect, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride enjoyed a tremendous comeback at the Met, where it returned to the stage in 2007—90 years after its last appearance. Though it is hardly a repertory staple, the opera follows on the heels of the company’s wildly successful performances of Orfeo ed Euridice, proving that Gluck’s music is ready to embrace immense popularity among a new audience of enthusiasts. The resurgence of interest is partially due to the Baroque music renaissance but largely stems from a single singer: American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who has made Iphigénie’s challenging title heroine one of her calling cards.

Iphigénie is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching kinds of expressions,” says Graham, who has been hailed for her performances of the role in several major opera houses across America and Europe. “I just love it because it’s still within a sort of classical framework. The aria ‘Ô malheureuse Iphigénie’ is in a major key, but it’s so mournful. Because of the wide range of dynamics, it gives a great opportunity to be very expressive.”

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A coproduction with Seattle Opera, Iphigénie en Tauride was directed by Stephen Wadsworth, whose work at the Met included stagings of Handel’s Rodelinda and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. “Iphigénie is primarily a sequence of internal actions, and that can be difficult to make active in a theatrical sense,” Wadsworth says. “That’s the challenge, and I think that’s why the piece has been elusive. But when you have a great singer like Susan, an artist sovereign in intellect and emotional complexity and understanding. She, more than anybody else, is the reason we’re seeing the opera more.”

Based on the Euripides tragedy, Iphigénie en Tauride tells the story of a young Greek princess who was transported to Diana’s temple on the peninsula of Tauris when her father, Agamemnon, attempted to offer her as a human sacrifice. Now a high priestess of Diana, Iphigénie and her fellow priestesses are captives of Thoas, king of the Scythians. Thoas brutally orders them to sacrifice two of their countrymen who become shipwrecked on Scythian shores—one of whom, unbeknownst to Iphigénie, is her long-lost brother.

Wadsworth placed the story in a Greek temple, recast with Scythian iconography—the desecrated space acting as a grand spiritual and symbolic backdrop upon which both the larger plight of Iphigénie and her priestesses and Iphigénie’s more personal inner turmoil play out.

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“Gluck had a vision of recapturing some of the purity and power of Greek tragedy,” explains Wadsworth, “and we’ve tried to do that with our set,” designed by Thomas Lynch. The costumes were by Martin Pakledinaz, with lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis.

“It takes place in a temple built by the Greeks in the Crimea,” Wadsworth continues. “It’s fallen down to some degree, and been adapted by the Scythians—with their own metalwork and statuary—for the worship of Diana.” What impresses Wadsworth most about Iphigénie is Gluck’s pioneering approach to music-theater, foregoing almost all musical and dramatic embellishment in a period known for its elaborate ornamentation.

“Gluck envisioned a music drama that was really stripped clear of all of the excesses of decorative art,” he says, “which, in the middle of the 18th century, was quite a radical act. The character’s needs and passions would be laid bare in a pure narrative and all dramatic gestures would be simplified.”

Graham relishes this straightforward approach to creating a character and conveying emotion. “It’s one of those opportunities that you have to give over and tell a story but not really act it out, which is great,” she says. “It’s what we do in life every day. It becomes a kind of a narrative, because I’m telling the priestesses and also telling the audience the story that a) is in my past and b) is about to unfold in front of them.”

Gluck’s choice of exposition over action in this character-driven opera
can prove challenging from a directorial point of view. But Wadsworth believes that bringing forward the actors’ rich associative minds and emotional personalities and setting them in an elemental space is a sure way to get aligned with Gluck’s dramatic vision.

“Every choice we make in the show is meant to put the story, and the character, forward,” he says. “The actors are paramount—and Gluck hasn’t always been treated like that. I think the temptation is to say, ‘Ah, big long stretches of internal action are too hard to carry. So let’s gussy it up and make it look extraordinary, and hide the fact that the actors aren’t carrying it.’”

Graham agrees with Wadsworth that Iphigénie’s unadorned music and straightforward narrative requires a kind of emotional openness she hasn’t encountered in other roles. “From an acting standpoint, there’s really nothing to accomplish but telling the story,” she says. “And it’s great because then you can strip away everything and be totally honest. There’s not an enormous amount of action, but there’s so much description of the inner life of my character that the challenge is just to strip away anything that’s getting in between me and that true emotion.”

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Gluck’s intensely inward-looking approach was to have a profound effect on both contemporary and future opera composers. “He really reawakened old forms on a new template,” Wadsworth says of the composer. “And in a way that was extremely influential. Mozart with Idomeneo, Berlioz with Les Troyens, Wagner—all of these people were very, very consciously taking a page from this great moment of Gluck’s thinking.”

Not only were the composer’s dramatic methods forward thinking, but elements of his score were as well. The opera, while featuring numerous Italianate arias, also contains French declamation and short airs, lending it a highly fluid, nearly through-composed structure. And yet the music seems almost to move back a step in its simplicity, sacrificing the complex counterpoint and florid figuration that typified 18th-century opera, to better capture the essence of the Greek tragedy the work is based on.

“The music is so simple,” Wadsworth explains, “and there’s a kind of purity about that—a window onto something sublime that only comes from music of that kind of plainness. It’s not interested in being fancy, it’s interested in being direct, and it’s interested in the importance of telling the truth. It draws something from performers that’s so pure in a narrative sense. You’re available and open and you are uttering something so sublimely simple that we receive essential truths both from the moment and from the artists making it.”

Although Euripides’s tragic tale of family separation and grief is thousands of years old, Graham feels its themes continue to resonate strongly today. “I think it’s pretty clearly laid out what the symbolism of the story is and what the literal aspect of the story is. This is Greek Tragedy meets Freud 101. This is a very dysfunctional family here. But there are certain elements of it that, like all Greek tragedy, are timeless and universal. It’s so powerful,” she adds. “I think audiences are surprised by the power of this piece. They just love it.”