A Greek princess, a Parisian courtesan, a Druid priestess, and a princess-turned-slave in ancient Egypt. This month, four extraordinary female characters take center stage at the Met. Their stories, spread out over continents and millennia and told by three of opera's greatest composers, are among the most dramatic and passionate in the opera house. Gluck's Iphig_nie, Bellini's Norma, and Verdi's Violetta and Aida are vulnerable women — but they are also powerful. They are victims, yet they take their destinies into their own hands.
"It's one of those rare opportunities to give yourself over and tell a story but not really act it out," Susan Graham says of the title character in Gluck's final operatic masterpiece Iphig_nie en Tauride. It's a role Graham has been identified with more than any other singer in recent decades; she finally brings her celebrated interpretation to the Met when the work returns to the company for the first time in 90 years on November 27 in Stephen Wadsworth's new production. "It's so powerful," Graham adds. "Audiences are surprised by the power of this piece." Opposite her, the legendary Plšcido Domingo adds another role to his impressive repertoire with the part of Iphig_nie's brother Oreste. French conductor Louis Langr_e makes his company debut leading a cast that also features Paul Groves as Pylade and William Shimell as Thoas. The production is designed by Thomas Lynch (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), and Neil Peter Jampolis (lighting), with choreography by Daniel Pelzig.
The previous Met production of Iphig_nie (which was also the work's U.S. premiere) was first seen in 1916 under the title Iphigenia auf Tauris. It was sung in German and used Richard Strauss's adaptation of the score. Gluck's groundbreaking approach to a unified form of music and drama was viewed warily early on, but today his historic contribution as a true opera reformer is widely acknowledged. "Iphig_nie is a story about siblings who have spent a lifetime hoping for resolution to the tragedy of their family," Wadsworth explains. Gluck's vision of focusing on the story and putting the protagonists and their emotions in the spotlight — rather than the elaborate vocal excess of earlier composers — was "quite a radical act," the director continues. "The characters' needs and passions would be laid bare in a pure narrative, all musical and dramatic gestures would be simplified, all utterance honest and uncompromising."
More than in many operas, the title heroine really carries the piece in Iphig_nie, the story of a young woman, separated from her family, believed by them to be dead, and forced into service as a priestess in a foreign country. "It's so incredible," says Graham, who has sung the role in three major productions around the world within the last several years. "From an acting standpoint, there's really nothing to accomplish but telling the story. And the character is so rich because she's forced into a life where her servitude is killing people. Her grief is so deep when she learns of the demise of her family and she feels like she is the only one left. [There's such] a wide range of emotions, it's one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching kinds of expression."
Even if Iphig_nie's story doesn't end in death — the stage aesthetics of Gluck's time demanded a "lieto fine," a happy ending — it can hardly be called joyful. "It's a very tragic story, and it's a tragic ending in a way," explains Maestro Langr_e. "I mean, what is the possibility of life after that? Oreste has killed his mother because she killed his father, and [Iphig_nie] has been saved by Diana — but for what?" Even if brother and sister are reunited and sent home to Mycenae, they face a troubled future.
While the tragedy of Iphig_nie is set off by the Trojan War and the separation from her family, Norma and Aida are characters who find themselves caught between loyalty to their countries and love for their enemies. "Norma's tragedy is the conflict between love and duty," says Maria Guleghina, who sings Bellini's heroine (as well as Verdi's Lady Macbeth) at the Met this month. "As any woman, Norma wants to love. But her love is a 'crime' because she is the high priestess of the Druids — a virgin. She loves the enemy of her people, and she is raising two of his children." When Norma realizes that the children's father is abandoning her for another woman, she tries to kill them to prevent them from having to live in shame. Even in opera, where things tend to be larger than life, heroines seldom face more desperate choices.
Except, of course, in Aida. That character, too, is in love with her enemy, an Egyptian soldier. And even though he returns her love, he is promised to the Pharaoh's daughter, whom Aida, herself a princess held captive, serves as a slave. "Just think about it," says Angela M. Brown, the Met's Aida this November. "A pampered princess in anybody else's court would have broken down by now. But she's in this situation, this predicament, and she's dealing with it, she's still being strong!"
In the story of another strong yet doomed woman, Verdi's Violetta, politics play no part. Suffering from a mortal illness, Verdi's "fallen woman" is crushed by the conventions of a society that will not tolerate a courtesan's honest love for a man from a "good family." (La traviata returns to the Met this month with Ren_e Fleming in the title role; the soprano shares her thoughts about Violetta here.)
The stories of Iphig_nie, Norma, Aida, and Violetta reach beyond the bounds of theater and address fundamental questions about the relationship between the individual and society — and between men and women. As Angela Brown sees it, they also provoke comparisons to the way we live today: "These ladies have got a lot on their plate, and they are running things. It's amazing how the power of womanhood can make these men just crumble, They just go crazy. There's some real true life there!"