'Iphigenie en Aulide' was the opera with which Gluck set out to conquer the lyric stage in Paris in April 1774. France was the only country to resist the fashion for Italian opera that prevailed everywhere else in civilised Europe in the first half of the 18th century and to develop instead its own national form of serious opera, the tragedie lyrique. As an acknowledged master of the Italian manner, therefore, Gluck's appearance in Paris was bound to be controversial, seeing that audiences there were not to know that some of the principal elements of the new reform opera that he had pioneered over the preceding twelve years in Vienna - the introduction of chorus and ballet, the lack of a strong distinction between recitative and aria - derived from French operatic practice. He had a useful ally in Paris, however, in the person of the newly crowned young queen Marie Antoinette, who had previously, as an Austrian archduchess, been one of his singing pupils at the Viennese court, and could always quell dissent during the long and stormy rehearsals for the new opera by threatening to fetch the queen! In the event the opera was a great success and Gluck quickly became established as the new saviour of French opera, a worthy inheritor of the mantle of Lully and Rameau. The story is that of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, recommended by Diderot and by Algarotti in his 'Essay on Opera' as an ideal subject for an opera. It has strong dramatic situations and well contrasted principal characters - the king torn between duty and family affection, the distraught queen, their daughter whose sacrifice is threatened and her ardent lover determined to save her. There is a prominent role also for the priest Calchas who interprets the will of the gods and, as always in French opera, much ballet and choral scenes. All in all it is a varied and attractive opera, but somehow has never quite attained the reputation of the later 'Iphigenie en Tauride,' 'Alceste' or 'Orphee,' the other major operas of Gluck's Parisian years. In this country it was done at Glyndebourne a few years ago and before that there was a fine concert performance at the Spitalfields Festival of 1987. It is, therefore, a great boon to have this recording under John Eliot Gardiner, who is such a fine conductor of Gluck's works. He leaves out much of the ballet music and chooses to conclude with a strange chorus in which the Greek forces determine on victory over Troy (Gluck himself did end the opera in different ways for different performances). The leading singers are uniformly excellent. They include the imposing Jose van Dam and Anne Sofie von Otter no less as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Lynne Dawson as an appealing Iphigenia and John Aler dependable as her stalwart Achilles. This opera is unlikely to be recorded again very soon, nor is this performance likely to be equalled, so do buy it while you can.
This opera, recorded as long ago as 1987, has long been among my favourite Gluck recordings, even though I am by no means invariably a JEG fan. I love in particular the magnificent opening: the overture is here hard-driven in a manner which will scandalise anyone used to Klemperer's massive, marmoreal version; it is in fact a third faster but always tense and dramatic, forming the perfect introduction to Agamemnon's superb lament, "Diane impitoyable", here so nobly sung by José Van Dam in finest voice. That aria epitomises the unique appeal of Gluck's direct but melodious style. There is a lean grandeur to Gluck's music, well served by the Lyon orchestra playing with minimal vibrato but no scratchiness. Lynne Dawson's bell-voiced soprano is ideally suited to Iphigénie; she is lovely in "Par la crainte". Anne Sofie von Otter is in best,youthful voice, rich and smooth. A favourite lyric tenor, John Aler, sings ardently and gracefully as Achilles. Gilles Cachemaille is obviously idiomatic as the priest Calchas. The Monteverdi Choir is very fine and Gardiner directs unobtrusively, letting the music breathe when necessary and avoiding the rushing which sometimes mars his recordings.
If you know only "Orfeo ed Euridice", this, the first of Gluck's Paris operas, or "Iphigénie en Tauride", also in an excellent recording by Gardiner, are both perfect places to start broadening your acquaintance with his other works.
If you ever hear the overture of this opera, you will become hooked. It is one of the most compelling beginnings to any piece of music. This interpretation is rather fast, but the singing is wonderful.