Christoph Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris, a tragic opera about the fate of survivors, their guilt, and the question of who will pay for the crimes of the past, is a relentlessly dark and difficult challenge for viewers. The program’s awkward synopsis seems to say it all when it opens with the kind of jovial avuncular language that introduces sitcoms: “Every family has its problems, but those of the House of Atreus in ancient Mycenae set an unwholesome benchmark for dysfunctionality.” The plot setup could easily inspire mockery rather than serious engagement. Iphigenia has narrowly escaped her father’s attempt to sacrifice her to the gods, but now she is charged with the task of sacrificing prisoners taken by King Thoas, scapegoats who take the fall for his own crimes. Her brother, Orestes, awaits punishment for the crime of matricide, but he and his friend, Pylades, argue about which one of them should expiate the crime of Orestes (each insists on dying for the other). I overheard a young audience member whisper to his friend with a mixture of scorn and confusion in his voice, “Those guys love each other so much. They’re like, let me give my life for you.”
The Greek theme of sacrifice risks alienating modern viewers because of its seeming indifference to the question of blame. Who committed what atrocity does not matter to the gods, so long as someone pays for it. This logic demands a lot from an audience that has the financial crisis on its mind: many are questioning the justice of austerity measures that sacrifice the future of those who may have had no hand in the crisis. But Iphigenia in Tauris succeeds, I think, because it ultimately makes the floating, indiscriminate menace of payback a confusing issue for its audience: it asks us to linger over the question of whether sacrifice is demanded by the irresistible forces of nature and right. At the moment I write, Greece is paralyzed by a general strike against austerity cuts demanded by the Eurozone in return for financing the country’s insurmountable debt. Soon Toronto’s version of occupy Wall Street will be under way. It is precisely in this tumultuous moment that Iphigenia asks us to think not about who should be responsible, but who, ultimately, will suffer. It runs until October 15th.