Gluck's Successful Sequel: Iphigenia in Tauris

WOO-1217-Iphigenia-300Sequels have been popping up in all kinds of dramatic entertainment for a long time now, going all the way back to the days of classic, Greek drama, and continuing in today's movie houses, and they can make for great ticket sales.

The built-in following sequels are assumed to have, and the box office potential that goes with it, are big reasons for the many sequels we find at the cinema -- not to mention that a sequel doesn't require a brand new idea to get started. And that lack of fresh ideas may be why many, if not most, dramatic sequels simply fail to live up to their predecessors.

Then again, have been some noteworthy success stories, particularly at the movies. George Lukas's The Empire Strikes Back was surely a worthy follow up to Star Wars, and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part II is considered by many to have surpassed the original. More recently, there's the whole catalogue of Harry Potter and Twilight movies.

Surprisingly though, with a history of sequels stretching from ancient Athens to modern Hollywood, there are almost no sequels to be found at the opera. (Yes, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro does follow up on the story of Rossini's The Barber of Seville -- but Figaro was written first, so that doesn't count.)

Still, opera does give us at least one, truly great sequel. In the early 1770s, Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera called Iphigenie en Aulide. It's based on the classic, Greek story of Iphigenia, whose father was ordered to offer her up as a human sacrifice, to appease the gods. And in one version of the story Agamemnon does sacrifice Iphigenia, and that was that.

But when Gluck wrote his version of the tale, tragic endings at the opera were considered bad form. So, at the end of Iphigenia in Aulis, the gods have second thoughts, and Iphigenia is spared. And that turned out well for Gluck. The opera was a sensation, and its ending allowed his heroine to live on, in a sequel. Today, that follow-up might be called, The Continuing, Excellent Adventures of Iphigenia. In 1778, Gluck called it Iphigenie en Tauride. It's the happier chapter of her life story, at least eventually -- the part where she survives her dysfunctional family, saves her brother's life, and returns safely to Greece.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone brings us Gluck's second opera about Iphigenia, from the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham stars in the title role, with baritone Russell Braun as her brother Orestes, in a production led by conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.