- Tragédie lyrique in 4 acts
- Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
- Libretto: Nicolas-François Guillard (1752–1814), after Euripides’ tragedy
- First performed : Académie Royale de Musique (2e salle du Palais-Royal), 18 May 1779
“There are two supreme gods in the art of music,” Berlioz declared: “Beethoven and Gluck.” He considered Iphigénie en Tauride a masterpiece of the human spirit, to be performed with reverence.
There are times when I think it’s the greatest opera of the 18th century, possibly even the best work until 1835 or 1836. It unites musical beauty with dramatic tension to a degree not even Gluck himself had achieved to this point. It has some of the most profound and innovative scenes of its period (including a masterly early handling of the subconscious).
Some, though, may find the work lugubrious. The characters include a guilty matricide tormented by the Furies, and who longs for death; his long-lost sister, a priestess ordered to sacrifice him to a cruel cult; his friend (or gay lover), also sentenced to death, and ready to die for his friend; and a violent, superstitious king.
There are no laughs. But it is austere, powerful, deeply felt, and always human. Gluck is immortal, his operas sublime.
The opera is a sequel to Iphigénie en Aulide (1774). In the first opera, Diana ordered Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to get a wind to bring the Greek fleet to Troy. At the last moment, the goddess snatched the princess from the altar and brought her to a temple in Tauris, Scythia, where she serves as priestess.
When Agamenon returned from the Trojan Wars, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him. To avenge his father, Orestes killed his mother and her paramour, with the help of his sister Elektra and his friend Pylades. Although this murder was ordered by the gods, Orestes is pursued by the Furies and his mother’s ghost.
Orestes and Pylades come to Tauris to steal a statue of Diana, which could cure his madness. A prophecy warns that a stranger will kill the king, Thoas; everyone who lands on the coast is sacrificed. Iphigénie, as priestess, is ordered to slay the two men…
Act I: The vestibule of the temple of Diana
There is no overture; instead, the orchestra depicts a storm at sea. It starts deceptively tranquilly, with an andante depicting the calm of the elements. Suddenly, the tempest erupts: an elemental, primeval hullabaloo, its force anticipating Beethoven. Iphigénie and her priestesses pray for the gods to show mercy.
The storm subsides – but Iphigénie tells her companions that the storm still rages in her heart. She dreamt she saw her mother kill her father; her brother kill her mother; the palace destroyed by fire; and she herself stab her brother Orestes. Her famous monologue (“Cette nuit j’ai revu le palais de mon père”) leads into the moving aria “Ô toi, qui prolongeas mes jours”, where she asks Diana to unite her in death with her family.
Thoas, too, has nightmares; in his guilt, he fears a vengeful god will unleash his thunderbolts (“De noirs pressentiments”). The Scythians bring on two captured Greeks: Orestes, who longs for death, and his friend/lover Pylades. (They don’t tell the Greeks who they are.) The Scythians celebrate their victory with wild revelry, with lots of percussion.
Act II: A room inside the temple where victims are held
One of the best acts in all opera. Oreste and Pylade are imprisoned, awaiting their execution. The guilt-ridden Oreste tells his friend he has committed another crime: not only has he killed his mother, he has become his only friend’s executioner. “Dieux, qui me poursuivez”, that passionate outburst of a man close to breaking.
Pylade comforts his friend (“Unis dès la plus tendre enfance”) ; at least they will die together. But guards drag Pylade away. Now comes one of the most celebrated scenes in the work, still extraordinary in its psychological intensity. “Le calme rentre dans mon coeur,” Oreste says; “calm has returned to my heart” – but it is the calm of exhaustion. The singer seems lost in another world, his voice coming from a vast distance. The emotional turmoil is in the orchestra, with its repetitive, obsessive, unsettling phrase. The musicians thought they’d got hold of the wrong piece of music, and put down their instruments. “Keep playing,” ordered Gluck. “He’s lying; he killed his mother!” The Furies and Clytemnestra’s ghost appear, demanding vengeance, tormenting his slumber: “Il a tué sa mère!”. The young Berlioz thought he would not be able to describe the horror of this scene.
Waking in a fit, Oreste thinks he sees his mother; it is the priestess, and, unbeknownst to him, his sister. He tells her the terrible fate of the house of Agamemnon, and that the avenger Orestes is dead. She pours out her grief in the sublimely lovely “O malheureuse Iphigénie”, with its gently flowing melody; the aria rises to a crescendo as the priestesses join in. Berlioz wrote in his Soirées de l’orchestre (1854): “The antique colour, the solemn accent, the melody and accompaniment, so worthily desolate, recall the sublimities of Homer, the simple grandeur of the heroic ages, and fill the heart with that unfathomable sadness which the evocation of an illustrious past always creates.”
Act III: Iphigénie’s room
Iphigénie decides she will rescue at least one of the pair; he will bring a message to her sister Electra at Mycenae. She offers the men the choice (trio: “Je pourrais du tyran”); each is ready to sacrifice his life for the other (duo: “Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes”). Orestes, longing for death and an end to his suffering, recriminates his friend; Pylades begs his friend to forgive him (“Ah! mon ami, j’implore ta pitié!”, which Barbedette thought the truest and tenderest expression of friendship steadfast even unto death); Orestes is taken off to be sacrificed; Pylade vows to save his friend or die in the attempt (aria: “Divinité des grandes âmes”).
Act IV: The temple of Diana (interior)
Iphigénie kneels at the foot of the goddess’s statue; she asks Diana to fill her heart with ferocity and extinguish her humanity (aria: “Je t’implore et je tremble, ô Déesse implacable!”).
Now comes the anagnorisis (recognition scene). The priestesses bring Orestes on, garlanded for the sacrifice. Iphigénie slowly advances towards the altar. ‘Strike!’ the priestesses command. ‘Iphigénie, sweet sister! Twas thus thou diedst in Aulis,’ Orestes remembers. The knife falls from Iphigenia’s hand. ‘My brother!’ she exclaims. Iphigénie’s companions hail him as their king. Thoas enters, furious that the sacrifice has not been accomplished – but Pylades arrives with his Greek soldiers, and kills Thoas. Diana comes down from the heavens to sort out the whole mess. The Furies will no longer pursue Orestes; instead, he will return to Greece with his sister, and reign as king. A joyful chorus (“Les Dieux, longtemps en courroux”) closes the work.
At the height of the Gluckiste / Piccinniste querelle, the Opéra director commissioned an Iphigénie en Tauride from each composer. Gluck’s version was a success from the start, despite, Barbedette wrote, its tragic and somber character, and the prevailing mood of terror. A contemporary remarked that there were beautiful pieces in the opera; the Abbé Arnaud replied that the most beautiful thing in the opera was the entire work (“Ce qu’il y a de plus beau dans Iphigénie, c’est Iphigénie tout entière”). More than a century later, Alfred Bruneau thought the première marked one of the most important dates in the history of art, and one of the most glorious events at the Paris Opéra. (Piccinni’s Iphigénie, performed two years later, flopped.)
Gluck performed a German version for Vienna in 1781; Richard Strauss reorchestrated this for late 19th century tastes in 1889.
For much of the 19th century, Iphigénie was regarded as Gluck’s greatest achievement. Wagner saw Gluck as his great model for the music drama. (Listen to his almost Beethovenian arrangement of the mighty Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide.)
Camille Bellaigue, however, thought Gluck could not be less like Wagner. Gluck was the great musician of antiquity, pure as Greek marble; Wagner was an impenitent Romantic. Gluck’s genius was essentially verbal; Wagner’s instrumental and symphonic. Gluck’s music is essentially simple; to move and charm us, he doesn’t demand us that we prepare ourselves; he only asks that we are not insensitive. He speaks to the spirit, or rather to the soul, to all, immediately.
“Listening to Iphigénie and Orphée after Tristan gives us the sensation of relief and deliverance. They show us an open door, where we can breathe and go out. Gluck never stifles or crushes us; he undoes the bonds that a too rough hand tightened yesterday. Mlle de Lespinasse once wrote: “The impression I received from Orphée‘s music was so profound, so sensitive, so heartbreaking, that it was absolutely impossible for me to speak of what I felt.” One could say the same about Tristan. But what follows: “This music, these accents attach charm to the sorrow… My friend, I came out of Orphée; it softened, it calmed my soul… my soul is eager for this kind of sorrow.” Nobody will ever say that about Tristan.
“Elsewhere, everywhere else, this music is deeply sad, but attractive. I would willingly say beneficent and even desirable. We wonder, listening to Tristan, if we could ever suffer so much. Listening to Orphée or Iphigénie, we wonder – alas! even more – that suffering may be thus mingled with beauty, calm, and gentleness. Iphigénie, having learned from Oreste the misfortunes and crimes of their race, simply replies: “Eloignez-vous, je suis assez instruite”. Gluck’s music constantly imitates the dignity and modesty of this ancient euphemism. It moves us without disturbing what Goethe – and, aptly, the Goethe of Iphigénie en Tauride – called the holy and inexhaustible treasure of repose.”
Iphigénie en Tauride isn’t merely historically important; it’s a moving, humane opera of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Orestes and Iphigenia are victims of an ancient curse on their house. Tantalus, their great-great-grandfather, killed his son Pelops and carved him up as a dish fit for the gods. The offended deities cursed Pelops and his clan. From generation to generation, brother warred against brother, wife betrayed husband, parents killed children, and children killed parents. Normal human relations have broken down, and the cycle of violence continues.
Quand verrons-nous tarir nos pleurs ?
La source en est-elle infinie ?
Ah ! dans un cercle de douleurs
Le ciel marque le cours de noire vie ! the priestesses sing.
Orestes is capable of love; he is willing to die for Pylades. But he is part of the cycle; he has killed his mother, and offended the natural order. “Vengeons et la nature et les dieux en courroux,” the Furies sing.
Iphigénie, the victim, the one innocent person left in the family, must make a moral choice. Her siblings have killed their mother; her hands are free from a kinsman’s blood. (In Gluck’s opera, she sacrifices the victims; in Euripides’ play, she only laves them.)
“The girl is the soul, a soul of piety, and pity, too,” Bellaigue wrote. “Really, music did not have to wait until Wagner to know and express the religion of human suffering. The smallest recitative, the slightest note of Iphigénie’s role exudes compassion, and twice … this feminine charity triumphs over terror and despair.”
She is ordered to kill a stranger. Something stops her. Forced to choose whether Orestes or Pylades will live, she chooses the former. For the first time in five generations, a relative does not spill another’s blood.
Diana comes down from Olympus to tell the last of the Atreidae that the curse is over; the gods have forgiven them.
Having finally recognised each other, the brother says to the sister, looking away: “Quoi! vous pouvez m’aimer!” And the sister, hastening to reassure the brother, replies: “Ah! laissons là ce souvenir funeste.” Instead of seeing, as would be natural, the parricide – involuntary, no doubt, but still parricide – she only sees the brother found against all hope. Those whom she has lost like him, even the very one she has lost through him, she forgets; she forgets everything for him, who alone remains, but who remains! Incapable of cursing or even regretting, she removes from him remorse even unto remembrance; she wants to taste with him, without reproach, this moment of sad sweetness. And her heart melts, and all her tenderness falls, to rest indiscriminately on the object of so many evils, now the only object of her love. “Je suis faite pour aimer et non pour haïr.” The word is doubly from a Greek maiden and sister: Sophocles’ Antigone said so, and Gluck’s Iphigénie sang it.Bellaigue
The 2011 Met production has an added, effective touch. The original ending may seem too pat to a modern audience. The gods, we feel in our secular age, can’t simply descend from heaven and order everyone to forgive each other; forgiveness must work in human terms.
Iphigenié, in this production, turns her back on Orestes. He has murdered her mother. She could murder him, in revenge … and the whole bloody cycle would begin again. But, as the last notes of the opera play, she embraces her brother, and lets go of her mother’s memory (represented by a yellow scarf). She chooses to forgive him.
And that act of forgiveness ends the revenge that blighted the family: Atreus’s revenge on his brother Thyestes, his son Aegisthus’s revenge on the Atreidae, Clytemnestra’s revenge on Agamemnon, Orestes and Electra’s revenge on Clytemnestra. The family is reunited and whole again. Iphigénie, who lamented in her great aria “O malheureuse Iphigénie” that she had no relatives, has found her brother. Brother and sister, free from blood guilt and the burden of revenge, can face the future.
- Marc Minkowski, 1999, with Mireille Delunsch (Iphigénie), Simon Keenlyside (Oreste), Yann Beuron (Pylade), with Les Musiciens du Louvre (Deutsche Grammophon)
- John Eliot Gardiner, 1986, with Diana Montague, Thomas Allen, and John Aler, with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon (Philips / Decca)
To watch: The 2011 Met broadcast, with Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves. Domingo, at 70, really is too old for the part of Oreste, and his voice has lost its bloom, but the production is intense and moving.
- IPHIGÉNIE, priestess of Diane (soprano): Rosalie Levasseur
- ORESTE, her brother (baritone): Henri Larrivée
- PYLADE, his friend (tenor): Joseph Legros
- THOAS, king of Scythia (bass): Jean-Pierre (?) Moreau
- DIANE (soprano): Mlle Châteauvieux
- A priest of the sanctuary: Chéron
- A Scythian: Lainé
- Two priestesses
- Chorus of priestesses (Sopranos, contraltos)
- Chorus of Scythians (Hautes-contre, tenors and basses)
- Chorus of Greeks (Hautes-contre, tenors and basses)
- Chorus of Eumenides (Sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses)
- Ballet: Mlles Guimard, Heinel, MM. Vestris, Gardel, Dauberval
- Conductor: Louis-Joseph Francœur
Setting: Tauride, after the Trojan War
Acte I : The entrance hall of the temple of Diana in Tauris
Scene I – Iphigénie, Priestesses
- Chant dialogué : Grands dieux, soyez-nous secourables !
- Récit du songe : Cette nuit, j’ai revu le palais de mon père !
- Chœur : O songe affreux ! nuit effroyable !
- Récitatif : O race de Pelops, race toujours fatale !
- Air : O toi qui prolongeas mes jours
- Chœur : Quand verrons-nous tarir nos pleurs ?
Scène II – The above, Thoas, guards
- Récitatif (Thoas) : Dieux! le malheur en tous lieux suit mes pas
- Air (Thoas) : De noirs pressentiments, mon âme intimidée
Scène III – The above, the Scythians
- Chœur : Les dieux apaisent leurs courroux
- Récitatif (Iphigénie et Thoas) : Malheureuse ! – Grands dieux, recevez nos offrandes
- Reprise du chœur
- Récitatif (Iphigénie, Thoas) : Dieux ! étouffez en moi le cri de la nature
Scène IV – Thoas, Guardes, the Scythians
- Récitatif : Et vous, à nos dieux tutélaires
- Chœur : Il nous fallait du sang
- Danses des Scythes
Scène V – The above, Orestes and Pylade
- Récitatif (Thoas, Pylade, Oreste) : Malheureux ! quel dessein à vous-mêmes contraire
Scène VI – Thoas, the people
- Reprise du chœur : Il nous fallait du sang
Acte II : An inner chamber of the temple
Scène I – Oreste, Pylade
- Récitatif (Pylade et Oreste) : Quel silence effrayant
- Air (Oreste) : Dieux qui me poursuivez
- Récitatif (Pylade) : Quel langage accablant pour un ami qui t’aime !
- Air (Pylade) : Unis dès la plus tendre enfance
Scène II – The above, a priest of the sanctuary, guards
- Récitatif (Le Ministre, Pylade, Oreste) : Étrangers malheureux, il faut vous séparer
Scène III – Oreste
- Récitatif : On l’enlève, hélas ! Pylade est mort pour toi
- Arioso : Le calme rentre dans mon cœur
Scène IV – Oreste, the Eumenides
- Chœur (coupé par des exclamations) : Vengeons et la nature et les dieux en courroux
Scène V – Oreste, Iphigénie, Priestesses
- Récitatif (Oreste, Iphigénie) : Dieux cruels ! Ma mère, ô ciel !
Scène VI – Iphigénie, Priestesses
- Récitatif : O ciel ! de mes tourments la cause et le témoin
- Chœur : Patrie infortunée !
- Air avec chœur : O malheureuse Iphigénie !
- Récitatif : Honorez avec moi ce héros qui n’est plus
- Chœur et solo : Contemplez ces tristes apprêts
Acte III : Iphigenia’s chamber
Scène I – Iphigénie, Priestesses
- Récitatif : Je cède à vos désirs
- Air : D’une image, hélas ! trop chérie
Scène II – The above, Oreste, Pylade
- Récitatif (Jeune prêtresse, Iphigénie) : Voici ces captifs malheureux
Scène III – Iphigénie, Pylade, Oreste
- Récitatif (Pylade, Oreste, Iphigénie) : O joie inattendue !
- Trio : Je pourrais du tyran tromper la barbarie
Scène IV – Pylade, Oreste
- Récitatif (Pylade, Oreste) : O moment trop heureux
- Duo : Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes ?
- Récitatif (Oreste) : Quoi, je ne vaincrai pas ta constance funeste ?
- Air (Pylade) : Ah ! mon ami, j’implore ta pitié !
Scène V – The above, Iphigénie, Priestesses
- Récitatif (Iphigénie, Oreste, Pylade) : Que je vous plains ! Vous, conduisez ses pas
- Arioso (Oreste) : Quoi ! toujours à mes vœux vous êtes inflexible ?
Scène VI – Iphigénie, Pylade
- Récitatif (Iphigénie) : Puisque le ciel à vos jours s’intéresse
Scène VII – Pylade
- Air : Divinité des grandes âmes !
Acte IV : Inside the temple of Diana
Scène I – Iphigénie
- Récitatif : Non ! cet affreux devoir, je ne puis le remplir
- Air : J’implore et je tremble
Scène II – Iphigénie, Oreste, Priestesses
- Chœur : O Diane, sois-nous propice !
- Récitatif (Iphigénie, Oreste) : La force m’abandonne
- Arioso (Oreste) : Que ces regrets touchants pour mon cœur ont des charmes
- Hymne (Chœur) : Chaste fille de Latone
- Récitatif (Iphigénie, Priestesses, Oreste) : Quels moments ! Dieux, secourez-moi !
- Arioso (Iphigénie) : Ah ! laissons-là ce souvenir funeste
Scène III – The above, a priestess
- Final (Prêtresse) : Tremblez ! on sait tout le mystère
Scène IV – The above, Thoas, guards
- Suite du final (Thoas) : De tes complots la trame est decouverte
Scène V – The above, Pylade and the Greeks
- Suite du final (Pylade) : C’est à toi de mourir !
Scène VI – The above, Diane
- Récitatif (Diane) : Arrêtez ! écoutez mes décrets éternels
Scène VII – All, except Diane
- Récitatif (Pylade) : Ta sœur ! qu’ai-je entendu !