George Friederich Handel
Oreste by Ifigenia
Singapore International Festival of the Arts
Arts House, Chamber, May 25 8pm, May 26 5pm, 2019
Directed by Tan Shou Chen
Music Direction by Ng Tian Hui
Stage Management by Justina Khoo
Lighting Design by Alberta Wileo
Multimedia Design by Irfan Kasban
Oreste————– Chan Wei En
Dancer————– Billy Keohavong
Oboe I—————-Hu Qiuzi
Oboe II—————Leow Rui Qing
Violin I ————-Siew Yi Li & Jocelyn Ng
Violin II ————Joelle He & Natalie Koh
Double Bass——-Edmund Song
The Greeks and Trojans are at war. Greek King Agamemnon is prevented from launching his thousand ships unless he first appeases the wrath of Artemis. The goddess demands a blood sacrifice and it must be Ifigenia, his oldest daughter. Learning of her father’s dilemma, she gives herself to the sacrificial sword so that the Greeks could begin their advance. The young princess’ nobility moves the goddess and before the sword falls, Artemis saves her, transporting her to Tuarides where she serves as priestess for the city.
Ifigenia is now in charge of exacting a terrible decree by King of Tuarides, Toante (King of Tuaris, Thoas). In fear of an oracle prophesying that he will die at the hands of a foreigner, he declares every foreigner who lands on the shores of Taurides will be sacrificed to the city’s patron goddess Diana.
One night, Ifigenia has a dream: her long-lost brother Oreste has met his death. Dreams are never taken lightly in those times, and Ifigenia mourns the loss of her family, her home and her fate.
Oreste, however, is very much alive and has washed up on the shores of Tauris. While Ifigenia is sequestered in Tuarides, her mother Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon – she could not forgive him for sacrificing Ifigenia. For his mother’s crime, Oreste, murders her in cold blood. Immediately, the Furies descend punishingly upon Orestes for this act of matricide. With these vengeful harpies tormenting his night and day, he begs relief from the Oracle of Delphi, who tells him that he must steal a statue of Artemis that stands in Tauris and deliver it to Athens. Only then will he be free of the Furies. He does so, only to be captured by King Toante’s men and taken to be sacrificed.
Ifigenia now has two choices: obey the law and kill her unfortunate brother, Oreste, or surmount all she can to save her only kin.
Handel’s original opera begins with Oreste washing up on the shores of Taurides, pursued by the Furies. The dramatic arc centres around Oreste’s quest to survive King Toante’s death decree. Eventually, the hero, with Ifigenia’s help (and his wife, Erminone, his best friend Pilades, and Filotete, a guard in love with Ifigenia) succeeds in killing Toante, stealing the statue and leaving Taurides in triumph.
Oreste by Ifigenia is Ifigenia’s account.
About The Production
For the subject matter of the opera, Handel turned to a libretto by Giovanni Gualberto Barlocci, which was in turn derived from Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians. In the original Greek play, Ifigenia is the central heroine and the dramatic arc centers around her ability to save her brother and his friend Pilade (Pylades) from certain death . However, in the opera, a love interest is thrown into the drama by way of a captured wife, Ermione, who rebuffs the advances of King Toante, and steadfast for husband Oreste. There is also a love interest for Ifigenia, the guard Filotete, whose feelings for her drives him to commit treason. One could argue this was quite the drama that would have been lapped up by an 18th century English audience when the opera first premiered.
Almost 300 years later, we reimagine Handel’s Oreste from the perspectives of Ifigenia and Oreste, focusing the dramatic action on the psychological journey of the main characters. In restoring the centrality of Ifigenia in our reimagination, we looked to existing texts of the work, and found great relish in a new verse translation by Rachel Hadas (2016), whose take on Ifigenia in both Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Tuarides presented a decidely more feminist lense than that of Handel’s libretto.
The staging is simple, using the terrain of The Art House, Chamber, the old seat of power. It is imbued with politics and the energy demands scrutiny of ideas, sentiments and thoughts. Every inch of this deftly beautiful space calls upon an equal ready to stand trial. The inversion of the space of the observer and the observed subverts the power dynamics even more. Everyone is in full view – the performers, audience, orchestra, conductor, stage manager and director. There really is no way to hide, unless one crouches like a coward. This is Ifigenia’s arena.
With the terrain of the Chamber as the foothold, made seemingly two-dimensional by a whitewash of pristine cloth, players cut through the arena with voice and body, carving new spaces, new energies, retelling an old myth, bringing new ears for Handel’s beautiful melodies.
how myth changes: first, a deep
annunciating thump arrives in your ribcage,
then, you twist the smooth pages of the old story,
crumpling them up and flattening them out, scratching
their surface until the ink relinquishes its authority,
and the words tell it the way you’ve always felt
it should be.”
-Tim Mayo from his poem “Taxonomies”
*Ifigenia is the Italian spelling of the heroine’s name. As Handel’s libretto is in Italian, aside from the characters and cities that do appear in the original libretto, the English spellings will be used in the program notes as it is likely to be more familiar to our audience.