Tragédie lyrique in 4 acts
Libretto : Nicolas-François Guillard (1752–1814), after Euripides’ tragedy
First performed: Académie Royale de Musique (2e salle du Palais-Royal), 18 May 1779
For more information about the opera, see the dossier.
Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des operas, 1869:
Euripides’ tragedy follows Iphigenia in Aulis, by the same poet. Orestes, Pylades, Thoas, Iphigenia and the priestesses of Diana are its characters. Gluck won with this work a definitive victory over his adversaries, among whom were clever men, such as Marmontel, La Harpe, Ginguené and d’Alembert. The public could only admire the truth of expression, the powerful originality of the effects, the magnificence of the first act, Iphigenia’s dream, the Scythians’ dances, the hymn to Diana, the instrumentation in turn suave, pathetic, solemn and fiery. Gluck was then 65 years old. A contemporary noted that there were beautiful pieces in this opera. Arnaud replied: “There’s only one.”—“Which?”—“The whole work.” It is true that we shall always admire a multitude of first-rate creations in this score. Nevertheless we shall indicate Thoas’s air: De noirs pressentiments mon âme intimidée; Oreste’s sleep; Pylade’s air: Unis dès la plus tendre enfance ; those of Iphigénie : O malheureuse Iphigénie ; Je t’implore et je tremble ; the hymn : Chaste fille de Latone. Mlle Levasseur sang the role of Agamemnon’s daughter. We can’t omit a word from Gluck, which proves with what depth of study he endeavoured to express his characters’ feelings. While Oreste sang: Le calme rentre dans mon cœur, the orchestra continues to paint the agitation of his thoughts. During the rehearsal, the performers did not understand and stopped. “Keep playing!” replied the composer. “He’s lying; he killed his mother!” Another word from him is perhaps even more explicit. One day he was praising a chorus in Rameau’s Castor and Pollux: Que tout gemisse. One of his admirers, wishing to flatter him, said: “How different this chorus is from that in your Iphigénie en Aulide! This one transports us into a temple, the other is church music.” “And it’s very well done,” replied Gluck; “one is only a religious ceremony, the other is a true burial, the body is present.” He often said that he feared to appear too much the musician in his operas.
Queen Marie-Antoinette, the Comte d’Artois, the princes, all the great noblemen, great wits and men of taste received this work enthusiastically, and saluted in it a tribute rendered to the French genius, its language, manners, even its traditions. Although German, Gluck belongs to France more than to his own country. His dramatic musical genius came from Corneille and Racine, and the recitatives of Lully, Campra and Rameau’s French operas inspired him much more than is generally believed.