The mythology based on the House of Atreus has been the source of infinitely many works in European culture, and opera is not an exception. While the most famous example remains Elektra by Richard Strauss, Iphigénie en Tauride, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is based on one of the last episodes of that saga, as told by Euripides in his tragedy. To understand the plot, we need to know the whole story, and director Andreas Homoki shows us the previous events, acted out in pantomime during the first aria and chorus, where Iphigénie and the other priestesses comment on the terrible ongoing storm.

Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie) © Monika Rittershaus
Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie)
© Monika Rittershaus

We see Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the gods and guarantee a successful war campaign in Troy. His wife Clytemnestra kills him at his return from the war, aided by her lover. Orestes, the only son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenges his father, murdering his own mother. But Iphigenia was not dead: she was saved at the last moment by the goddess Artemis (Diana), and transported in Tauris, in modern Crimea, to serve as a priestess.

In this primitive land, in Homoki's vision, everything is black. The stage is a black funnel, with a warped perspective, almost invisible in its blackness; its shape becomes apparent when it breaks, in sharp-edged, garish, wildly jagged cracks – like bolts of lightning – that let in a blinding white light, only to close again quickly. Iphigénie and the other priestesses, as well as the Taurians are clad in total black, complete with gloves and veils, for the women, while the men are blindfolded. It is a psychological interpretation: Iphigénie’s exile becomes internalised, the black prison is inside her, in her birth, in her inability to escape the orgy of blood running through her family.

<i>Iphigénie en Tauride</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Iphigénie en Tauride
© Monika Rittershaus

Cecilia Bartoli gave a strong, emotional interpretation of Iphigénie. In this opera, written in 1779, Gluck completed his musical evolution, abandoning the strict forms of Baroque opera for a more open, modern style. The arias are still in A-B-A form, but all the recitatives are accompagnato, with the whole orchestra, and the continuo is gone. The dazzling coloratura of only a few decades before is discarded in favour of a more emotional lyricism, made of simpler melodies and large phrases. Bartoli sang Iphigénie relying on her beautiful legato, with a perfect style larmoyant, exhibiting amazing breath technique, and heart-breaking pianissimi. Engulfed in a sort of burqa, with stylised movements, she resorted to her legendary facial expressions to convey the deep, contrasting emotion of the priestess.

During the storm, a Greek ship has been wrecked on the shore in Tauris; two men have survived, and Thoas, King of Tauris, demands that they be sacrificed to Diana, to ward off misfortune. They are none other than Iphigénie’s brother Oreste and his friend Pylade. Oreste is tormented by the Erinyes, who torture him because of his matricide: he wishes to die and end the pain. The relationship between Pylades and Orestes is decidedly homoerotic in nature, in all sources of the myth; director Homoki doesn’t tergiversate, and has Pylade kissing Oreste as soon as they are alone in their cell, waiting for their execution. Frédéric Antoun, as Pylade, sang the most tender, heart-melting farewell after that kiss (“Unis dès la plus tendre enfance”), with his engagingly warm tenor, in soft flowing legato phrases.

Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie) and Stéphane Degout (Oreste) © Monika Rittershaus
Cecilia Bartoli (Iphigénie) and Stéphane Degout (Oreste)
© Monika Rittershaus

Stéphane Degout was an Orestes devastated by guilt and overwhelmed by his fate. Degout did not sacrifice interpretation in favour of “pretty” singing, and his choice made for an intense, emotional performance. His beautiful, naturally elegant baritone enlivened a noble figure, dignified and tragic.

When Iphigénie recognises her brother Oreste, the circle of blood and vengeance is broken: she dispels the curse on her family through her compassion and love for her brother, Diana (dea ex machina) forgives Oreste and sends the siblings back to Mycenae, to reign and live in peace. Homoki does not believe in this happy ending. Oreste and Pylade escape through one of the lightning cracks, but Iphigénie collapses and is left in her grave-like world, pulling her veil over her face. She cannot escape her cursed bloodline: liberation is denied to the very person who makes it possible.

Stéphane Degout (Oreste) and Frédéric Antoun (Pylade) © Monika Rittershaus
Stéphane Degout (Oreste) and Frédéric Antoun (Pylade)
© Monika Rittershaus

Gianluca Capuano gave a very intense reading of the score, choosing fast tempi and a relentless pace. The Orchestra La Scintilla exhibited great precision and a vast range of dynamics; the brass section in particular stood out for their sharp, clear-cut sound. The Zurich Opera Chorus, on stage for most of the performance, was consistently excellent. The opera was performed without an interval, and the respectful Zurich audience never interrupted with applause; this gave an even deeper sense of philosophical exploration to the evening, which was a tremendous success.

*****