Watch the Opera Marie Watched

"Iphigenie en Tauride" from Theatre La Monnaie, in Brussels.

Operatic tragedies don’t typically have sequels. It’s not impossible, it’s just that it gets harder as as the main characters die.

Not so with Iphigenie en Tauride which was actually a sequel to Iphigenie en Aulide. Tragic endings were not in fashion for 18th century audiences and Iphigenie could continue her adventures elsewhere. In this one she’s a Greek Princess and is reunited with her brother and all that getting-sacrificed-by-her-father and mom-was-mudered-by-my-brother business is water under the bridge.

Iphigenie en Tauride play debuted at the Paris Opéra, May 18, 1779 with Marie Antoinette herself in the audience. When she saw it, she wrote her sister:

“…What a great triumph, my dear Cristina! …I was captivated by it and can talk of nothing else. Everyone is enormously excited as a result of the event. It is incredible how many arguments and disputes are raging, as if it were some religious controversy. At court…people take sides and there are lively discussions about it, while in the city the criticism is even more intense…”

A Christophe Willibald Gluck production held special meaning for Marie. She’d known his music before she was even born. While her mother Empress Maria Theresa was pregnant with Marie, she commissioned Gluck to create theatrical music for an official salary. His inauguration in this role came at a special court ball, just six months before Marie was born.

Gluck became her tutor, along with Wagenseil, Joseph Stephan and Joahann Adolf. Marie was surrounded by music and learned to sight-read like a professional.

As she grew older, Marie worked hard to ensure that his work received a greater audience. Support for Gluck helped establish Marie as a patron of the arts and as an influence separate and apart from figures such as Madame du Barry. Gluck’s performances were often great success and Parisian audiences learned how to enjoy opera in French by an Austrian.

Gluck openly disparaged French opera and aimed to the bridge the gap between the operas of Paris and the rest of the continent. His works were sometimes opposed by Piccininists, supporters of this composer with a more traditional style and debates raged in salons over which was better. The process was exhausting and meant he’d produce a play and leave France soon afterward.

This particular play served as a solace for a very pregnant Marie awaiting her first child. Relations between France and Austria were strained enough that Marie could not directly request the composer to bring his latest production to France. However, mom Empress Maria Theresa thought she might need a lift and dispatched him.

Gluck’s work was an inspiration to Mozart and Wagner who both performed the piece for concerts. The triumph anticipates Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, unifying lyrics and music, while doing away with the aria and  dry recitatation that had predominated in Italian opera of the time replacing them with more continuuous melody.

To experience his artistry in the modern day, you have a few options:

1. Go see the performance!
Metropolitan Opera, New York, New York
Feburary 2011-March 2011
Tickets: $25-$410

Washington National Opera,
Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.
May 6-28, 2011

2. Come to a seminar:
Lecture: Better Than Melody: Greek Tragedy and Gluck’s Reforms in Iphigénie en Tauride
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 6:00 PM – 7:15 PM
Metropolitan Opera Guild
Tickets: $16!

3. Get on YouTube!
Video of the San Fransisco Opera production
Video excerpt of the World Premiere Organ version

Whaddya think? Would you give opera a chance?


4 thoughts on “Watch the Opera Marie Watched

  1. Lucy says:

    I love the opera, but it’s so rare I get the chance to go here in Montreal. Every time I visit Italy though, I try to take the opportunity to attend whatever La Scala di Milano is presenting. Great article once again:)


    • mistressoftheblog says:

      I know – i hardly ever go. The opera can be so cool. That’s great you go when you visit italy — opera in Italy must be amazing. My grandmother was an opera singer in Italy back in the day and I’ve always felt like I should support opera more than i do.


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