Iphigenie and Knitting
You don’t even want to hear about the opera, right? You don’t want to hear how fabulous it was?*
And now I’ve spent so much time on what started out as a single footnote** about the opera that . . . you’re just going to have to wait till tomorrow for the next knitting update. Hint: I finished another square. And it did involve some knitting in the dark. Which may not have been such a good thing. . . .
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* Pretty damn fabulous. http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/season/production.aspx?id=10997
I love Gluck; he wrote the Orfeo ed Eurydice that my pet singing-lesson mangle, Che Faro [Senza Eurydice], comes from.^ But Orfeo is the only Gluck opera I know really well, although I’ve got two or three others on CD. Iphigenie en Tauride is one of them. And I was so blown away by it tonight at Live at the Met in your friendly neighbourhood cinema that I’m going to ask Oisin^^ if, wearing his sheet-music mail-order-shop hat, he can find any of Iphigenie’s music.^^^ She has a couple of arias that have the same kind of meltingly, gloriously flowing line and despair that make Che Faro such a show-stopper.
You know your basic ancient Greek myths, right? So you know that Agamemnon, hot to get to Troy and kill him some Trojans+, asked the gods for a favourable wind, only they were sulking, and he didn’t get one. Gotta kill me some Trojans! said Agamemnon. Whimper! Okay, said the gods. Sacrifice your daughter. Then we’ll give you a nice wind. Oh, okay, said Agamemnon, and laid her on the altar and slit her throat. Gee, dad. So he got his wind, and you know about Troy, and then he came home, and his wife, who was the tiniest bit cross about Iphigenia, killed him.++ Whereupon Orestes, who seems to have inherited the male-honour fetish, killed her.+++ At which point the Furies felt that things had gone too far, and proceeded to drive him bonkers, but with a family history like his I think he was for the pink elephants anyway.~
This opera supposes that Artemis (who is generally the one who wouldn’t give Agamemnon his wind in the first place) snatches Iphigenie out from under her father’s tender care at the last minute . . . and then rather ambiguously plonks her down to be the high priestess with the knife for a king and country who feel that the way to keep their border safe is to murder any foreigners who attempt to pass it. She must be one busy priestess. Anyway, she’s not having a good time, and then a couple of Greeks get washed up on their shore, who prove to be Orestes and his one remaining friend, Pylades.~~ You the audience know who everybody is before they do, so they get to stomp and anguish (and sing) while you are more or less on tenterhooks as to how it’s all going to work out. Iphigenie has been ordered to kill strangers, of course, and Oreste positively wants to be killed, and their family luck is fairly dire, so . . .
It works. I think it works a treat. The whole House of Atreus thing generally has always been way too yucky for me to engage with: killing children, with or without feeding them to their parents, always loses me. But what the story does do is set you up for some characters who are really, really really trapped by fate . . . which is a fabulous opportunity for a really great storyteller (with or without music) to render his or her audience into a wet spot on the floor.~~~
I have some reservations about the staging—I always have reservations about opera staging> —but Susan Graham as Iphigenie is magnificent. Paul Groves is maybe a little over the top but he looks like he was directed to be that way, and he sings gloriously. The only slight disappointment was Placido Domingo—yes! Placido Domingo! who generally speaking I think walks on water—but both he and Graham had (we were told) heavy head colds. She was bearing with hers better.
Anyway. I’m playing the CD now. Graham, I’m afraid, does it better: this mezzo is a little too light. Never mind. Great opera. Not nearly well enough known. Maybe I’ll see what other recordings there are out there.
^ Gluck’s Orfeo is one of my [mumble] favourite operas: off the top of my head [. . . EXTENDED BLERG]. I’d better leave it as [mumble]. I started to tell you my top three operas and then thought, no, wait, what about —? So I raised it to five, and then thought, no, that won’t do, I can’t possibly omit — . Um.
So let’s leave it that if I ever figured out what my favourite operas list was, Gluck’s Orfeo would be on it.
^^ You’re all ready for the Oisin guest blog post riot tomorrow, right?
^^^ By golly I’ll force Wild Robert into those Monday afternoon peals yet.
+ I mean, cheez, his bro’s honour was at stake.
++ One of the things I loooove so much about the standard tellings of familiar myths is the way, in this case, Clytemnestra is demonised: she not only killed her husband—her HUSBAND!—but she had a lover. You know, if my husband killed our daughter for a breeze and then sailed away to a war caused by my sister-in-law running off with a pretty boy, I’d be cross too, and taking a lover would probably be only the beginning. And, uh—Cassandra? Lush little number in Agamemnon’s party? Among his spoils of war, you know. Pity about the gloomy prophecies, but you can’t have everything. She was young and looked good in her chiton. But you know, kings are like that. Clytemnestra—shock horror!—took a lover.
+++ While his remaining sister, Electra, ran around going ‘woe woe woe woe’.
~ Although I prefer the reading—and don’t ask me where it comes from, I haven’t reread my ancient Greeks in a long time—that suggests that Orestes killed his mum partly to take the burden of the family curse—the House of Atreus, don’t marry in—off her and onto himself. In most versions he does then blunder around being insane with everything a lot, which seems to me pretty reasonable, even without the Furies’ input.
~~ There are a lot of eye-poppingly homoerotic friendships in grand opera—one of the most famous is in Don Carlo that we just saw earlier this season—but the one between Oreste and Pylades has just become the eye-poppingest I know of. I’ve read the libretto of course, but that ‘death is a blessing if the tomb unites us forever’ stuff just comes off as operatic silliness on the page, and generally the love-you-bro music is fairly, you know, hearty. The amazingly sweet and lyrical aria Pylades sings to Oreste after they’re captured is a love song. And in this production Paul Groves sings it as a love song. My jaw totally dropped. I was at least half expecting them to fall into each other’s arms and kiss passionately at the end. No. Exuberant forearm grasping only. Good grief. I was just looking at the intro to my Iphigenie CD set and the writer says, apparently straight-faced, that one of the strengths of Gluck’s opera is the way it presents such a range of human emotions ‘without the erotic element’. Ahem. Wrong.
~~~ And I love the Big Three of the ancient Greek storytellers: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—especially Euripides. If you wanted to ask me, I’d tell you I like them better than Shakespeare.
> And if I had one wish about operatic staging it would be to Banish Forever the Staggering to Demonstrate Emotion device.
** Some nights I have more of a clue what’s going to happen in advance than other nights
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