The reformer of opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) is best known for Orfeo, but Iphigenie en Tauride may well be his greatest work. Iphigenie in Tauride dates from 1778, making it Gluck's next to last opera. It was composed during Gluck's lengthy stay in Paris and met with immediate success. The opera is highly compact, consisting of four acts rather than five and running slightly over an hour and one-half. The libretto is in French and written by one Nicolas-Francois Guillard. The story is loosely indebted to Euripides. Goethe also wrote a version of this story.
The opera is unusual in that it involves friendship and brother-sister rather than erotic love. The opera also has as a theme the value of civilization and Englightenment over barbarism. The story is based upon the Greek myth of the house of Atreus. Iphigenia, the daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon, has become a Priestess in Tauride -- the people are called Scythians--after she has been rescued by the goddess Diana from an attempt to sacrifice her. The opera opens with a scene of a calm sea followed by a furious storm which deposits two strangers in Tauride. Following the local custom, the strangers are to be put to death by Iphigenia. The two strangers are Iphigenia's brother Orestes, who is under a curse for killing his mother, and his friend Pylade.
Iphigenia tries to save one of the pair from death, and chooses Orestes, not recognizing him. Orestes insists on saving Pyade. Just before she is to put Orestes to death, she recognizes him. The king of Tauride, Thoas, insists that the sacrifice be carried out. But Pylade returns and kills Thoas. Diana then intervenes and saves the Greeks as the opera comes to a triumphal conclusion.
In this opera, Gluck attained his goal of a near-total fusion between music and drama. The work is a combination of simplicity, directness, and passion. Recitive and arias are fused together almost seamlessly to create a musical unity. Dance movements, characteristic of French opera, are reduced. There are only two brief ballet interludes. Emotions and themes are characterized concisely. The orchestra and the chorus both play major roles in moving the action along.
Iphigenie was neglected for many years, but performances have been increasing. There are several fine choices available on CD. This version of Iphigenie was originally recorded in 1985 and has been released as part of the Penguin "Rosette" collection on Phillips signifying a recording of extraordinary merit. It is also moderately-priced, an important consideration in these difficult times. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre de L'Opera de Lyon and the Monteverdi Choir with an outstanding cast of soloists. Mezzo-soprano Diana Montague captures the many passions of the heroine. Baritone Thomas Allen is strong and heroic as Orestes. Tenor John Aler has a contrasting light voice as the faithful friend Pylade. Baritone-Bass Rene Massis snarls and blusters as barbaric King Thoas. The chorus and orchestra are superb and idiomatic, even though this is not a period instrument performance.
With the unified nature of Gluck's score, there still are some wonderful individual moments in the opera. These include the opening orchestral introduction (not an overture) depicting the sea, which moved Hector Berlioz greatly when he first saw the opera. The music for the Sythian chorus in Act I is highly rhythmic and jagged. Iphigenie, Orestes, and Plyade have a moving trio, and there are two duets of friendship between Orestes and Plyade. Some of the striking beautiful moments for Iphigenie include her aria "O malhereuse Iphigenie" from Act II and her scenes with the chorus of priestesses in Act IV. Orestes, Plyade, and Thoas have grand music as well. The opera comes to a rousing conclusion with the final chorus.
This CD comes with a complete libretto and translation together with informative program notes about the opera and about Gluck as a composer whose time may have come at last. For listeners who know only Orfeo, this recording is an excellent way to hear more of this great composer.