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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714 - 1787)
Iphigénie en Aulide (highlights) (1774) [74.16]
Agamemnon – Jose van Dam (baritone)
Clytemnestra – Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Iphigénie – Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Achille – John Aler (tenor)
Patrocle – Bernard Deletre (bass)
Calchas – Gilles Cachemaille (bass)
Une Femme grècque – Ann Monoyios
Une Femme grècque – Isabelle Echenbrenner
Une esclave – Ann Monoyios
Monteverdi Choir
Lyon Opera Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
WARNER APEX 2564 61507-2 [74.16]


Iphigénie en Aulide was Gluck’s first opera for Paris in 1774; the first of a group of works in which he successfully merged the beautiful simplicity of his reform operas (Orfeo, Alceste and Paride ed Elena). These three abandoned secco recitative in favour of a continuous texture uniting orchestral recitative, aria, arioso and dance; also Gluck strove to produce simpler, more direct drama which reflected human emotions and omitted the grosser form of virtuoso display common in baroque opera.

It was a success at its first performance and Gluck’s absorption of the elements of French tragédie lyrique reinvigorated his talent. Granted, the libretto to Iphigénie en Aulide is rather lacking. The first Act is mainly concerned with scene setting, but once the drama gets going in Act 2 - when Agamemnon announces that Iphigénie is going to the altar to be sacrificed not married - then the opera is utterly absorbing.

The plot, involving as it does Agamemnon’s dysfunctional family, plays out political events on a small, intimate family stage; so it is ideal for Gluck’s concern to show human level emotions.

These excerpts come from John Eliot Gardiner’s complete recording of the work, first issued on Erato in 1990; it is part of a group of recordings of Gluck operas which Gardiner made with the Lyon Opera Orchestra. So, though the conductor and singers may have excellent period performance credentials the orchestra plays on modern instruments, albeit in a period-inflected way.

Gardiner has a well chosen cast. Jose van Dam is incomparable as Agamemnon. Stanley Sadie, reviewing the original recording in the Gramophone, though that van Dam rather underplayed things in the opening scene, but to me his style seems just right as the drama unfolds slowly. Anne Sofie von Otter is on wonderful form as the rather tempestuous Clytemnestra and brings real force to her final outburst, ‘Ma fille’, when she imagines that her daughter is going to the altar.

As their daughter, Iphigénie, Lynne Dawson sounds authentically French, even to her rather sharp-toned soprano. She is intense and moving in the role and is adroitly stylish but I am not sure that she is ideal. As her lover Achille, John Aler has the unenviable task of articulating one of these impossibly high French tenor parts. Achille needs to blend heroics, grace and ardency and Aler does this remarkably convincingly. Given the tessitura of the part it would be too easy to make Achille a simpering sap, or to bray the music; Aler does neither and his entire performance is creditable. I must confess, though, that I thought that his tone sounded rather as if he was perpetually surprised. Others may disagree and anyway, it is a small price to play for stylish singing.

Stanley Sadie, in the Gramophone, found Gardiner's performance a little hectic at times. What I missed, on this recording, was the sort of neoclassical intensity that a performer such as Régine Crespin brought to Gluck's other Iphigénie.

The opera has been well filleted for these highlights, its duration reduced from 132 minutes to 74 minutes. As ever with this series, the liner notes are rather brief and they do not really link the plot to the individual tracks. This is acceptable with highlights from a well known opera, but with one such as Iphigénie en Aulide some additional help would be welcome.

This remains the main contender for recommendation for this opera. Anyone who does not possess this work on disc might like to consider these highlights if they can’t run to a complete recording. But whichever you choose, this is an essential opera for your collection.

Robert Hugill

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