Iphigénie en Aulide


Thursday 8 November 2012
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Christoph Willibald Gluck was already sixty years old when he followed his pupil Maria Antonia, who by that time had become the Dauphine Marie Antoinette, to Paris. There he wanted to continue developing his idea of the international reformed opera with elements of the French and Italian tradition. In 1762 he had presented his first work of this type, Orfeo ed Euridice, in Vienna. His aim was an organic blend of words and music and clear beauty that speaks to the heart.

The Trojan prince Paris has abducted Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. This humiliation prompts the Greeks to go to war against Troy. King Agamemnon of Mycenae gathers the Greek fleet in Aulis. But because he has offended the goddess Diana she causes the wind to drop, becalming the warships. The High Priest Calchas announces that the goddess will not send any wind unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to her. However, the plan was to marry Iphigenia to Achilles. Now, instead of a wedding there will be an execution. But Achilles opposes the plan to sacrifice his bride. King Agamemnon is torn between the interests of a father and those of a warrior. When the warhungry populace demands the sacrifice ever more loudly, Iphigenia accepts her fate. In Gluck’s version the goddess Diana is not only appeased by this humility and transports Iphigenia to Tauris in keeping with the mythology, but also releases her entirely from her service. Iphigenia and Achilles can marry after
all before the heroes set out to war.

By deliberately breaking with the vocal virtuosity of Italian tradition which had by then become so conventional as to be an end in itself, Gluck achieved a musical interpretation of the characters of an intensity never before known: Agamemnon's agony, his inner conflict between a father’s love and his duty as a general, is vividly portrayed. Although the premiere was rather coolly received, Parisian audiences quickly discovered the work’s merits, and tickets for subsequent performances were soon only available on the black market.