Tragédie-opéra in 3 acts
First performed : Académie Royale de Musique, April 12 1774
Composer : Ritter Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto : M. du Rollet, after Racine and Euripides
“From Gluck’s appearance dates modern art; from him come all the great masters who have enchanted the world both during his life, and after his death.” – Barbedette
Iphigénie en Aulide was Gluck’s first opera for Paris. Seldom performed today, it should, like all Gluck’s major works, be as much a warhorse as Mozart’s best operas.
Based on Euripides via Racine, it tells of Agamemnon’s anguished choice between his daughter and his country, between family love and religion.
The gods demand Iphigenia’s life in exchange for the wind that will take the Greek fleet to Troy.
Gluck is credited with introducing dramatic truth to opera; his disciples include Mozart, Berlioz, and Wagner.
“He was gifted with an extraordinary feeling for expression and a rare understanding of the human heart,” Berlioz wrote, “and he used all available musical resources for this sole purpose… He was the first to make this art a genuine poetic language.”
I confess, though, that it took me a while to warm to Aulide. I first heard it a decade ago, when the earliest opera I’d heard was Mozart’s Idomeneo. There was much that was beautiful, but I found Iphigénie musty and antiquarian, too remote. It seemed, if you will, to be gathering dust in the Attic.
Listening to it now, more familiar with Gluck and his predecessors, it’s undeniably a fine work. It is, admittedly, less compelling than its sequel, Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck’s masterpiece, but here one will find all the qualities that make the composer great: dramatic intensity; sublimely lovely music; and psychological penetration.
- AGAMEMNON, King of Mycenae (baritone): Henri Larrivée
- CLITEMNESTRE, his wife (soprano): Mlle Duplant (Françoise-Claude-Marie-Rosalie Campagne)
- IPHIGÉNIE, their daughter (soprano): Sophie Arnould
- ACHILLE (haute-contre): Joseph Le Gros
- PATROCLE (bass): Durand
- CALCHAS, High Priest (bass): Nicolas Gélin
- ARCAS, captain of the guard (bass): Beauvalet
- Thessalonian WARRIORS
- WOMEN of Argos, Aulis, and Lesbos
- DIANE and her Priestesses
Based on piano-vocal score, Novello, Ewer & Co., London; and Ernest Newman, Gluck and the Opera: A Study in Musical History, 1895
BACKGROUND: The Greeks, on their way to Troy, were detained at Aulis by a calm, sent by Diana in revenge for the slaughter of a stag by Agamemnon in her sacred grove. The Greeks demanded of the soothsayer Calchas to be told how they might propitiate the goddess. In reply, he declared that a costly offering was required, and to content them he promised to name that day the victim that must be sacrificed. To Agamemnon, Calchas had said that Diana’s wrath could be appeased only by the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia.
The overture is one of Gluck’s finest, a mighty, magisterial piece.
ACT I: The Greek camp
When the opera opens, Iphigenia is already on her way from Mycenae to Aulis, accompanied by her mother, Clytemnestra, to be married to Achilles. Agamemnon has sent his servant Arcas to meet them, and to tell them that Achilles is faithless to his love, and is about to take another bride, hoping thereby to make them turn back to Mycenae. He declares his anguish at the thought of sacrificing Iphigenia in his opening monologue “Diane, impitoyable! … Brilliant auteur de la lumière”. Calchas tells the king to submit to the will of the gods in a truly sublime aria, “Au faîte des grandeurs”; “With that aria,” the Abbé Arnaud said, “one could found a religion.” Iphigenia and Clytemnestra come to Aulis, and are received with acclamations by the Greeks. The choruses “Que d’attraits” and “Non, jamais, jamais aux regards” are full of grace. Clytemnestra hears that Achilles is faithless, whereupon she at once urges Iphigenia to leave Aulis and return home. Newman considered her “Armez-vous d’un noble courage!” a magnificent aria full of strong, sinewy passion. Achilles himself enters, in transports at the sight of his betrothed – and is surprised at being received with coldness and disdain. On asking and learning the cause, he vehemently denies the charge of faithlessness. Iphigenia is, without much difficulty, persuaded of his truth. The Achille/Iphigénie duet “Ne doutez jamais de ma flamme” closing Act I anticipates Mozart.
ACT II: A vast portico in Agamemnon’s palace
The second act begins with the congratulations of the chorus to Iphigenia, whose heart, however, is ill at ease. Achilles has heard of Agamemnon’s report that he was false, and Iphigenia dreads an encounter between them. All appears, however, to be going well, as Agamemnon orders a feast to be prepared, presumably for the solemnization of the nuptials. Achilles then presents his friend Patroclus to Iphigenia, and leads a chorus in her praise, “Chantez , célébrez”. This scene is worthy of Rameau. While the people are loud in their congratulations and praises, Arcas can no longer keep silence, but reveals to Achilles, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia, the real design of Agamemnon. Clitemnestre’s urges Achille to save her daughter’s life, in an exquisite, mournful piece, “Par un père, cruel”. Achilles assures Iphigenia and her mother that he will defeat this purpose, and save Iphigenia, who still, in spite of all she has heard, believes that her father loves her, and is impelled by the irresistible power of fate. A fine trio, “C’est mon père, seigneur”, follows. Achilles and Agamemon meet, and Achilles upbraids him with his unnatural cruelty. Agamemnon resents the interference of Achilles, and proceeds to the execution of his design, but the anticipation of the remorse he would suffer if he slew his daughter prevails over his fear of the gods. He bids Arcas take away Clytemnestra and Iphigenia from Aulis secretly, determining, if need be, to die himself in her place (“Ô toi, l’objet le plus aimable”).
ACT III: The Greek camp
To this the people will not consent, as they imagine that the blood of Iphigenia must flow, if Diana is to be appeased. Iphigenia is ready to be offered, and entreats Achilles to take no steps towards her deliverance, but to let her die for her people. The act contains several moving arias for Iphigénie, “Il faut de mon destin” and “Adieu, conservez dans votre âme”, which Newman considered one of the most perfect emotional utterances of the 18th century. Achille’s “Calchas, d’un trait mortel blessé” fired the audience to such enthusiasm at the first performance that officers rose in their seats, grasping their swords, and were scarcely able to refrain from rushing onto the stage. The sacrifice is about to be made, and Clytemnestra tastes by anticipation the full horrors of the scene. Clitemnestre calls for Zeus to strike down the Greeks in the electrifying “Jupiter, lance la foudre”. Newman called it the most modern expression ever attained by Gluck; “it is perfect in feeling and form, and might have come from the pen of Mendelssohn himself”. Achilles attacks the maddened crowd. Just when they are about to fall upon him, the restraining voice of Calchas is heard, proclaiming that the wrath of Diana is turned away by the virtues of Iphigenia, the tears of Clytemnestra, and the valour of Achilles. The marriage of Achilles and Iphigenia is then no longer delayed, and in their union the Greeks see an omen of their own future victory and renown. (An anticlimactically happy ending!)
I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s 1987 recording (Erato), with José van Dam (Agamemnon), Lynne Dawson (Iphigénie), Anne Sofie von Otter (Clytemnestre), and John Aler (Achille).
Marc Minkowski’s 2011 recording doesn’t do the work any favours, despite a fine cast headed by Véronique Gens; the HIP instruments make the music sound grey and muted.
Wagner revised the opera in 1847; Ring-heads might like to check it out, but even a Wagnerian like Ernest Newman says that “What Wagner made of Gluck is no longer Gluck”.
After his three Viennese reform operas (Orfeo ed Euridice, 1762; Alceste, 1767; and Paride ed Elena, 1770), Gluck turned his attention to Paris. Einstein (133) suggests that his reforms had failed; “no international operatic event … but only a local Viennese one”. He needed a larger stage: Paris – then the centre of the civilized world, as it would be until WWI and the rise of New York.
His works’ similarities to those of Lully and Rameau would also secure their success (Newman, 111).
At the same time, the Encyclopaedists, led by Diderot, were calling for a renovation of the operatic libretto, the torpid dramatic music, and the manner of performance (Einstein, 134).
François-Louis Gand Le Bland du Roullet, a Normand nobleman attached to the French embassy in Vienna, wrote the libretto of Iphigénie for Gluck, based on Racine’s tragedy (1674), reducing its five acts to three. Diderot and Algarotti had suggested this would make an ideal opera.
Roullet prepared the ground with a flattering letter to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique (the Opéra).
“This great man,” Roullet wrote, “after having made more than 40 Italian operas which have had the greatest success in all the theatres where that language is admitted, has convinced himself, by a reflective reading of the classics and the moderns, and by profound meditations on his art, that the Italians have departed from the true road in their theatrical compositions; that the French genre is the true dramatic musical genre; that if it had not hitherto reached its perfection, that was due less to the talents of the truly estimable French musicians, than to the authors of the poems, who, hardly knowing the scope of musical art, had, in their compositions, preferred wit to sentiment, gallantry to passions, and sweetness and the colour of versification to pathetic styles and situations…
“M. Gluck was indignant at the bold assertions of those of our famous writers who dared to slander the French language, arguing that it was not likely to lead to great musical composition. Nobody on this subject can be considered more competent than M. Gluck; he possesses perfectly the two languages; and although he speaks French with difficulty, he knows it thoroughly; he made a special study of it; he understands all its subtleties, and especially the prosody, of which he is a very scrupulous observer…
“It appears to me that this great man has exhausted in his creation all the powers of art. Simple, natural song, supported throughout by a genuine and interesting expression and an enchanting melody; an inexhaustible variety of ideas and devices; the loftiest effects of harmony, whether in the portrayal of the terrible, the sublime or the tender; a rapidly moving and at the same time able and expressive recitative, similar to the best of the French recitatives; the greatest versatility in the dance pieces, which are of a quite new kind, full of the most alluring freshness; choruses, duets, terzetts, quartetts, all alike expressive, moving, and well declaimed with a scrupulous regard to the prosody; in short, everything in this composition appears suitable to the taste of the French, while there is nothing in it which could seem to them peculiar. And all this is the work of the creative talent of a Gluck, in whom we everywhere see poet and musician at once, everywhere the man of genius and taste; nothing is common, nothing neglected.”
Dauvergne did not answer the letter, but published it in the Mercure de France (October 1772).
Gluck followed suit with a letter to the same journal, published February 1773.
“The imitation of Nature is the aim both [composer and librettist] must set themselves, and it is this I have sought to attain,” he wrote. “Simply and naturally my music always strives, as far as it is possible to me, after the highest power of expression and the strengthening of the declamation in the poetry. On that account, I never employ trills, passages and cadenzas, with which the Italians are so liberal…
“By seeking a melody noble, sensible and natural, together with a declamation following exactly the prosody of each language and the character of each people, to find the means to effect my purpose of producing a music appealing to men of all nations, and eliminating the ridiculous distinctions of national music…”
Gluck then sent Act I of Iphigénie to Dauvergne.
“If the Chevalier wants to commit to deliver six such scores, nothing better,” the director replied; “otherwise, Iphigénie will not be played; such a work will kill all the old French operas.”
There the matter may have rested, were it not for one fortunate fact: Marie-Antoinette, then dauphine of France, had been Gluck’s music pupil.
Iphigénie was performed, the first of six operas, all bar one classics. And far from killing French opera, Gluck revitalized it.
In autumn 1775, Gluck, his wife, and his niece travelled to Paris. With the dauphine as his protectrix, the work was soon put into rehearsals – which took six months, earning the composer notoriety before success.
“The opera,” Gustave Desnoiresterres wrote, “was a heavy machine in which disorder, abuse, whim, routine, and inertia were despotically enthroned, and no one found fault with it. While the actors were on stage, we saw, in the back of the theatre, the dancers rehearsing their steps. The choruses were represented by mere extras; the real chorus sang in the wings. In the orchestra, everything was en famille. The musicians, according to the weather, came or did not come; the conductor marked the beat by rapping on his desk.”
Gluck had to educate the singers and the musicians. The singers rejected any criticism. “Let me put on my costume,” the baritone Henri Larrivée (singing Agamemnon) said, “and you won’t recognize me.” The singer did so; that was the only change. “My friend, I recognize you very well!” Gluck retorted.
The actresses were spoilt by adulation, and supported by the aristocrats. To get them to sing in tune, and repeat a passage, Gluck had to threaten them with the queen.
And the dancer Vestris (who fancied himself one of the three most remarkable people in Europe, alongside Voltaire and Frederick the Great) was horrified that Gluck didn’t end the opera with a brilliant chaconne where he could show off. “Did the Greeks have chaconnes?” Gluck asked. “They didn’t? All the worse for them, then!” Vestris said, stalking off in a huff.
The lead fell ill on the day scheduled for the performance, April 13. A substitute was suggested; Gluck refused, even threatening to leave for Vienna. The court, which would have to travel, countermanded it, and the performance was pushed back to April 19.
It was a success. From 11 in the morning, an enormous crowd pushed against the ticket booths; the opera house had to triple the guards to keep order. At 17h30, the hall was packed; all the court was present, except the king and Mme du Barry.
“While not irreproachable,” Barbedette wrote, “the performance was more remarkable than any the French public had attended.”
The first impression was astonishment. Marie-Antoinette clapped her hands throughout, and the court were obliged to do likewise.
“A great triumph, my dear Christine!” the dauphine wrote to her sister Maria Christine Josepha a week later. “On the 19th we had the first performance of Iphigénie: I was carried away by it, and people can no longer talk of anything else. All heads are fermenting as a result of this event, as much as could possibly be imagined – it is incredible, there are dissensions and quarrels, as though it were a matter of some religious dispute; at court, although I publicly expressed myself in favour of this inspired work, there are partisanships and debates of a particular liveliness; and in town it seems to be worse still…”
With each performance, Bardelette wrote, success grew; soon it was no longer in taste, but a mania. Women even styled their hair à l’Iphigénie: “a headdress in the form of a coronet of black flowers surmounted by the crescent of Diana, whence escaped a kind of veil that covered the back of the head”.
“This music was more truthful and pathetic than any heard before,” Fétis wrote. “It had a prodigious effect on the regulars at the Opéra. The French public found there what it sought in the theatre: dramatic truth, and respect for the proprieties of the stage.”
Iphigénie and the Paris operas that followed (reworkings of Orfeo and Alceste; Armide; Iphigénie en Tauride) established a model for opera, emphasizing dramatic truth, and sensitivity to the text.
The most extreme view of his achievement is that “Gluck créa chez nous la musique dramatique,” as Castil-Blaze proclaimed: Gluck created French dramatic music.
Bardelette (90), for instance, maintains that musicians – especially Italian musicians – were little concerned with local colour and truth of expression. So long as the music was beautiful and flattered the ear, all was well.
Gluck’s operas were real tragedies, written with nobility, majestic simplicity, and truth. As people said: “All who love the poetry of Corneille must love the music of Gluck.”
Bardelette also claims Gluck was the first to give orchestra an important role in opera (not just as accompaniment).
This is hard on Rameau and Lully. Certainly, in Rameau’s best operas, like Hippolyte et Aricie, we find an exhilarating blend of orchestral imagination and dramatic power. (Lully is insipid; his scores simply set the text.)
It is truer to say, as Clément suggests, that Gluck builds on the French tradition; he continues it, but with more advanced orchestration.
If Gluck made his orchestra speak more powerfully than his predecessors, Clément said, one must not deny them all dramatic merit. It is by comparison to the Italians that Gluck seems an innovator or a reformer.
Nevertheless, Iphigénie and her sisters marked the end of a convention, just as Hugo’s Hernani would liberate theatre nearly sixty years later. Many of the operas staged in Paris were imitations of Lully and Rameau – “pale successors”, Clément dubbed them.
“Ideas had marched on,” Clément wrote; “the public was no longer the same as in the days when Cambert’s Pastorale en musique was played, or Campra’s Europe galante. Gluck’s expressive music, the emotions of his orchestra, his dramatic melodies, and finally the genius of a great musician excited an enthusiasm that did not cool.”
His disciples in the late 18th century included Sacchini, Salieri, Piccinni, and Lemoyne in Paris, while the young Mozart learnt much from his scores. His influence is clear on such 19th century giants as Rossini (both in the Naples works and the French grand opéras), Meyerbeer, Halévy, Wagner, and Massenet.
ACT I: The Greek camp
- Recitative & Aria : Diane, impitoyable ! … Brillant auteur de la lumière (Agamemnon)
- Chorus, with Recitative : C’est trop faire de résistance … Tu veux que par ma main tremblante (Calchas)
- Recitative & Aria : Vous voyez leur fureur … Peuvent-ils ordonner qu’un père (Agamenon)
- Chorus, Recitative, & Aria : Clitemnestre et sa fille … Au faîte des grandeurs (Calchas)
- Chorus : Que d’attraits !
- Aria : Que j’aime à voir (Clitemnestre)
- Chorus, with Recitative : Non, jamais, jamais aux regards
- Aria : Les vœux dont ce peuple (Iphigénie)
- Recitative : Allez ! Il faut sauver notre gloire
- Aria : Armez-vous d’un noble courage ! (Clitemnestre)
- Recitative & Aria : L’ai-je bien entendu ? (Iphigénie)
- Recitative & Aria : En croirai-je mes yeux ? … Iphigénie, hélas ! vous a trop fait connaître (Iphigénie)
- Recitative & Aria : S’il était vrai … Cruelle, non, jamais (Achille)
- Recitative & Duet : Mon trouble, mes soupçons …. Ne doutez jamais de ma flamme (Achille, Iphigénie)
ACT II: A vast portico in Agamemnon’s palace
- Chorus : Rassurez-vous, belle Princesse
- Recitative & Chorus : Vous essayez en vain … Rassurez-vous, belle Princesse
- Recitative & Aria : Vous essayez en vain … Par la crainte et par l’espérance (Iphigénie)
- Recitative : Ma fille, votre hymen s’apprête
- Recitative : Rival de ma valeur
- Solo & Chorus : Chantez, célebrez (Achille)
- Chorus : La Grèce à peine
- Aria : Son front est couronné (Une Grecque)
- Ballet & Gavotte
- Quartett & Chorus : Jamais à tes autels (Iphigénie, Clitemnestre, Achille, Patrocle)
- Recitative & Chorus : Princesse, pardonnez … Nous ne souffrirons point ce sacrifice impie
- Aria : Par un père cruel (Clitemnestre)
- Recitative : Reine, rassurez-vous
- Terzetto : C’est mon père, seigneur (Iphigénie, Clitemnestre, Achille)
- Recitative & Aria : Suis-moi, Patrocle … Cours et dis-lui (Achille)
- Recitative : Je le vois
- Duet : De votre audace téméraire (Agamemnon, Achille)
- Recitative & Aria : Je n’ai plus qu’un mot à vous dire … Ô toi, l’objet le plus aimable (Agamemnon)
ACT III : The Greek camp
- Chorus & Recitative : Non, non, nous ne souffrirons pas
- Recitative : Princesse, suivez-moi
- Aria : Il faut de mon destin (Iphigénie)
- Recitative : Et vous m’aimez
- Aria : Adieu, conservez dans votre âme (Iphigénie)
- Recitative : Sans vous, Achille pourrait vivre
- Aria : Calchas, d’un trait mortel blessé (Achille)
- Recitative & Chorus : Cruel ! il fuit ! … Non, non, nous ne souffrirons pas
- Aria : Vivez, vivez, pour Oreste (Iphigénie)
- Recitative & Aria : Vous entendez les cris … Jupiter, lance la foudre (Clitemnestre)
- Chorus & Recitative : Puissante Déité !
- Double Chorus : Fuyons, fuyons tous
- Recitative & Chorus : Votre zèle des Dieux a fléchi la colère … Adorons la clémence
- Quartett & Chorus : Mon cœur ne saurait (Iphigénie, Clitemnestre, Agamemnon, Achille)
- Aria : Heureux guerriers (Une Grecque)
- Final Chorus : Partons, volons à la victoire
- H. Barbedette, Gluck, Heugel & fils, Paris, 1882
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Librairie Hachette & Cie, Paris, 1878
- Alfred Einstein, Gluck, trans. Eric Blom, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1936
- Ernest Newman, Gluck and the Opera : A Study in Musical History, Bertram Dobell, London, 1895
- Jean d’Udine, Les musiciens célèbres: Gluck, Librairie Renouard, Paris, 1906