Carsen’s Iphigenia

Iphigenia at the COC

Iphigenia at the COC

Robert Carsen has once again held up a mirror to an opera by Gluck with the help of the Canadian Opera Company.  Last season it was an award winning production of Orfeo ed Euridice.  Tonight I saw Iphigenie en Tauride, which the COC are calling “Iphigenia in Tauris” perhaps to emphasize the connection to Athenian tragedy.

The result is even more intense than last year.

I don’t think I realized how dark this opera is.  Or maybe it’s just that when everyone is singing, the drama is concealed or mitigated somehow; how could I miss it?  When everything is sung one can sidestep the gore and dysfunction that are the lifeblood of Athenian tragedy.  Iphigenia is in a most ironic position.  Rescued by the gods just as her father Agamemnon was sacrificing her, her new life as a priestess requires her to sacrifice others to the Gods.

We’re accustomed to portrayals of Orestes as a haunted man, pursued by the furies for having killed his mother Klytemnestra (avenging his father).  Carsen gives Iphigenia her own furies, dancers who sometimes seem to be the helpers in the temple.   In a world of bloody rituals divorced from anything spiritual or holy, the faithful attendants are every bit as scary as furies.

Carsen’s emphasis is decidedly psychological, with larger than life gestures taking us inside the protagonists’ painful conflicts.  Iphigenia is tormented by her role in the temple, while Orestes is haunted by memories of what he’s done.

Diana rescues Iphigenia, taking her to faraway Tauris where she presides over ritual executions.  While this might have seemed like a fair exchange in the ancient world, Carsen makes it clear just how cruel this fate is.  From the first moment Iphigenia is haunted, pursued by reminders of what she is living with at every moment.  This insight from Carsen is especially useful to counterbalance Orestes, the other haunted figure of this story.

Two wonderful portrayals come to life on the bare dark stage of the Four Seasons Centre.  Susan Graham takes us deeper into Iphigenia than I thought possible, a portrayal of strength and nobility.  I have never really liked this character so much as I did tonight, but Graham took me so deeply into her anguish that I see the character differently.  By surrounding Graham with stark reminders of Iphigenia’s actions (via the dancers), her solos were given more transparency than usual.

I had expected to like Russell Braun’s Orestes, and he did not disappoint.  I had been a bit nervous because other productions I’d seen sometimes play up the homoerotic subtext between Orestes and his friend Pylades.  Yet although they are willing to die for one another, this was a dignified and serious presentation that did not go off on that particular tangent, nor any other.


Susan Graham as Iphigenia (Photo Credit: Robert Kusel © 2006)

It’s not just a metaphor to say this is a dark production.  With all the dancers enacting and re-enacting ritual killing, I’d say this is the largest number of deaths I have ever seen on a stage in a single performance.   Even at the end, when I thought we’d see something more celebratory, Carsen chooses to keep the focus on the internal state of his protagonists rather than show us a happy world: because come to think of it that would mock all the death we’ve seen so far.  The ending is somewhat open (and i will have to think about what it might mean) as we contemplate where these figures shall wander next.  They do not seem fully reconciled to one another, although at least their tormenters — the furies who have been hounding them– are all dead.  I find myself wanting to go back to the beginning, to explore the cycle anew: in other words, to go see it again.

Iphigenia in Tauris plays at the Four Seasons Centre until October 15th.

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