Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Iphy: Brush up Euripides

Iphy is opera-speak for Christoph Willibald Gluck's classical opera, Iphigenie en Tauride. Gluck (1714-1787) based the 6th of his 7 French operas on the Euripides drama, Iphigenia in Tauris (the title alone is a link to the previous entry, Nixon in China: another opera that connects history, mythology & journeys to distant places).

I won't try and unwind that thread from Ariadne's proverbial spool any further. Iphigenie en Tauride is the next Met "Live in HD" broadcast, Saturday at 1 pm, hosted by Virginia Western Community College (more info is online at both of our websites).

Gluck's operatic adaptation from Greek mythology was composed in 1779. It had a profound influence on the 23 year old Mozart (echoes of Iphy recur throughout the Magic Flute). A generation or two later, the young Hector Berlioz would cite Iphigenie en Tauride as a formative influence on his decision to pursue a life in music. Gluck features prominently in Berlioz's important book on orchestration (a textbook still in use by composition teachers).

Gluck is noted for the "beautiful simplicity" of his elegant music and is most remembered for the "reforms" he brought to 18th-century opera. He bucked conventions and broke operatic rules he thought impeded the drama. These included the baroque convention of the da capo aria (one where the opening section was repeated, ostensibly to highlight a singer's virtuosity with embellishments and ornamentation).

One of the reasons Gluck is not as well known today as the opera composers on either side of him (Handel and Mozart) is simply because his arias are more thoroughly embedded into the texture of his operas. Like Wagner, late Puccini and Strauss, the "songs" in these operas are not easily excerpted. Is it surprising that Gluck's most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice contains his single most famous aria, Orpheus' lament for his lost love, Che faro senza Euridice?

In addition to restoring a sense of dramatic continuity using "through-composed" arias (and recitatives that emerge and recede organically from the musical texture), Gluck was a master orchestrator. He was one of the first composers to use the orchestra as a real character in the drama. His colorful use of percussion instruments (cymbals were still new in European music at this point in time) began a trend whose popularity hasn't waned. Gluck also linked the dramatic effects of his orchestration to the emotional states of his characters.

Iphigenie opens with "calm sea & prosperous voyage" music (deceptively calm music which always heralds a great tempest). The storm music raging around this island of the Black Sea is mirrored in Iphigenie's heart as she recalls her fate. "Brush up Euripides" refers to the mythological backstory. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon to curry favor for the Greeks in the Trojan war. Euripides saves Iphigenia from death at the port of Aulis with a deus ex machina intervention from the goddess Diana (who whisks Iphy away to Tauris).

Another important chapter of the backstory concerns Iphigenia's brother, Orestes, who has avenged their father Agamemnon's death. Agamemnon (who sacrificed his daughter) was killed by his wife, Clytamnestra. Oreste kills his mother to avenge his father.That Iphigenie en Tauride ends with Oreste and Iphigenie happily reunited is but one of Euripides most potent examples of dramatic irony.

Gluck underscores the kinship of Iphigenie and Oreste with musical symbolism. The storm music that appears with Iphigenie at the opening of the opera recurs in another guise later. The furies interrupt a moment of Oreste's calm by demanding vengeance for the murder of his mother. The furies (or Eumenides) drive Oreste almost to madness in a scene with pitch-perfect music. (In another labyrinthine thread, the Eumenides both refers to the furies and an Aeschylus drama that connects to Elektra, Strauss's opera named after another sibling in this family.)

Iphigenie en Tauride is a compact opera (just under two hours of music) featuring a pivotal triangle of characters. One relationship hinges on the long-lost sibling's reunion; the other is one of genuine fraternal love between best friends. Both Oreste and Pylade would rather lay down their own life in order to save the other. The music they sing to that effect--especially (the tenor) Pylade's aria--is classic Gluck, noble and sincere, an elegant example of "beautiful simplicity."

Many opera fans will be attending this broadcast expressly to see and hear the great Placido Domingo. Maestro Domingo has been portraying the (lyric) baritone role of Oreste for several seasons now. The great trio of principals is complemented by beloved American artists. The mezzo soprano Susan Graham sings the title character, and Oreste's companion, Pylade is essayed by Paul Groves (one of my favorite tenors). Patrick Summers conducts, and Roanoke's own Steven White has been behind the scenes aiding the musical preparation as an assistant conductor.

Berlioz described the "sleepless nights" Gluck's music caused his excitable soul. He claimed Iphigenie left him "possessed by an ecstasy." Come see and hear for yourself Saturday.

(And if you read this in time, I'll be talking about Iphigenie at the Virginia Western Natural Science Center this Wednesday at noon, in the next of our ongoing lunchtime opera chats).

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