Major Operas | Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald von Gluck | Classical Era
Gluck’s final tragédie for Paris, Iphigénie en Tauride, was his greatest success and is arguably his supreme achievement. With a tautly constructed libretto (by Nicolas-François Guillard, drawing on the play by Euripides), it represents the climax of Gluck’s efforts to ‘purify’ opera of dramatically superfluous decoration and display.
The action moves forward swiftly and remorselessly. Not a note is wasted. In addition, the flexible musical structures, with many ensembles and a fluid intermingling of recitative and arioso, powerfully enhance the development of the drama.
Iphigénie and her tormented brother Oreste drew from Gluck some of his most intense and anguished music – the heroine’s grieving aria ‘O malheureuse Iphigénie’, with its forlorn oboe solo and agitated syncopated accompaniment (a favourite Gluckian combination); or the scene for Oreste in Act II culminating in the haunting arioso ‘Le calme rentre dans mon coeur’, where his imagined peace is disturbingly contradicted by the orchestra. There are raucously barbaric numbers, in the fashionable ‘Turkish style’, for King Thoas and his Scythian followers, while the serene, luminous choruses for Iphigénie’s priestesses are the quintessence of Gluck’s ‘beautiful simplicity’ and left their mark on Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781) and Die Zauberflöte (1791).
Premiered: 1779, Paris
Libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard, after Guymond de la Touche and Euripides
Iphigénie, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestre, is a priestess of Diana on the island of Tauride. Clytemnestre killed Agamemnon and was killed in turn by Iphigénie’s brother, Oreste. Oreste has travelled to Tauride with his friend Pylade.
A storm rages on Tauride. Iphigénie and the priestesses appeal to the gods to calm the elements. Iphigénie tells of a terrible dream she has had, in which she was about to kill her brother Oreste. Desperate, Iphigénie prays for Diana to end her life. Thoas, King of Tauride, enters. He announces that Iphigénie must sacrifice every foreigner that arrives in Tauride; otherwise, say the oracles, he will die. He tells her of the capture of two young Greeks – in fact Oreste and Pylade – and orders their deaths.
In a cellar, Oreste laments his responsibility for his friend’s death and calls upon the gods to end his life. The loyal Pylade reassures him, telling him that he is happy to die if they are together. Pylade is then taken away. Oreste prays again for death and falls asleep, but is tormented by the Furies over his matricide. Iphigénie enters to find out more about the prisoners. They do not recognize one another, and although Oreste tells her of Agamemnon and Clytemnestre’s fates, he does not reveal his own identity and claims Oreste to be dead. Iphigénie mourns the deaths of her parents and brother.
Iphigénie tells the priestesses of her decision to save one of the prisoners. She has difficulty choosing, but eventually selects Oreste, as she feels an inexplicable tenderness towards him. When she tells the prisoners, however, Oreste will not...
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