Notes and Editorial Reviews
Iphigenie en Aulide was the opera with which the mature Gluck made his Paris debut, in 1774, and though flawed by an oddly unbalanced plot—which keeps dramatic interest at a low level in the first half of the opera, and because of the need for a happy ending offers a 'cop-out', dea ex machina solution of the (admittedly insoluble) dilemma at the end—it has some superlative scenes at the close of the Second Act and throughout the Third for all the principals: scenes which draw on the traditions of French opera and indeed French theatre to enlarge Gluck's expressive palette. I can understand why it is neglected, as compared with Orfeo or Alceste or the other Iphigenie, but the loss is ours. Just like Il trovatore, it is an easy opera to bring
off as long as you happen to have the four best singers in the world in your cast (though the criteria here are decidedly different from those applicable to Verdi). This performance may not quite do that, but it is certainly good enough to help rehabilitate the opera.
I do very much regret, however, that—especially with such a conductor as John Eliot Gardiner—this is not a period-instrument performance. The Lyons Opera band is a perfectly good one, but the smooth and bland sound of modern strings and wind does little to help animate the music of the First Act. There would be more vitality with a sharper-edged period sound. Gardiner directs a finely poised and balanced account of the Overture, which, however, I find a little unexciting and perhaps wanting something of the sense of foreboding that is surely intended. There are one or two unexpected ornaments here. Nor does the drama much quicken in the opening scene, where Jose van Dam—perhaps husbanding his resources—seems unduly calm in facing the possibility of sacrificing his daughter. Hints of stronger feeling come with Clytemnestra's offended pride (at the rumour that Achilles is planning to jilt Iphigeneia) and with Achilles's declarations of his passion. It is only with the disclosure that Iphigeneia is going to the altar not for marriage but to be sacrificed, with her father's consent, that the emotional temperature rises, especially in the trio where her mother and her lover express their rage but she, like those other proposed sacrificial victims in eastern Mediterranean mythology, Iphis and Idamantes, is reconciled to what she sees as filial and national duty, to an extent that she and Achilles practically quarrel over it.
From this point the performance becomes steadily more intense, as the singers rise to the challenge of the increasingly powerful music. Anne Sofie von Otter, vocally the most sophisticated member of the cast, sings her pathetic ''Par un pere cruel'' with some depth of feeling and brings real force to her great outburst, ''Ma fille!'', as she imagines her daughter on the sacrificial altar and then calls on the gods, in strongly focused, passionate tones. Lynne Dawson does some fine things as Iphigeneia, her slightly grainy and intense sound carrying much emotional weight, especially in the two airs of farewell, quite different in character, to Achilles and to Clytemnestra. Both are very movingly done. Yet I am not quite convinced that her voice is really ideal for French music; it is a large one, less than ideally flexible for these supple lines. Her air at the beginning of Act 2 seems, at a quickish tempo, a little hectic.
John Aler's Achilles seems to me an unqualified success, with just the right blend of the heroic and the graceful, as well as ardent in the scenes with Iphigeneia. He has a fine warlike air, delivered with splendid energy, in Act 3. Of all the principals, he is the surest stylist. As I indicated above, Jose van Dam starts off at a rather low voltage, but certainly rises to his magnificent monologue at the end of Act 2 as he tussles with himself, contemplating his daughter's death and the screams of the Eumenides, and resolves to flout the gods' decree and face the consequences. Van Dam uses a wide range of tone and does not fail to convey the agonies Agamemnon undergoes. There are some excellent performances in the smaller parts, Anne Monoyios in particular singing with charm and feeling as a Greek girl and as a slave, and Gilles Cachemaille doing well as Calchas.
Here and there I find myself wondering whether John Eliot Gardiner is not pressing the score forward a shade too much when a more deliberate tempo would convey more of its gravity. Some of the choruses (done by the admirable Monteverdi Choir) seem unduly cheerful, and a slightly less polished sound might serve better when the Greeks, impatient to embark for Troy, are baying for Iphigeneia's blood. The dances too might occasionally have profited from rather steadier tempos, I thought; but of course the direction is always carefully executed and tellingly detailed, notably in the big Passacailles in the Second and Third Acts. Not all of the cast's French pronunciation sounds quite assured. In sum, then, this may not be the last word on Iphigenie en Aulide, but it has many fine things and I am sure it will be the standard version in the catalogue for a good time to come.
-- Stanley Sadie, Gramophone [6/1990]
Works on This Recording
Iphigénie en Aulide by Christoph W. Gluck
Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano),
José Van Dam (Bass),
René Schirrer (Baritone),
John Aler (Tenor),
Bernard Delétré (Bass),
Isabelle Eschenbrenner (Soprano),
Guillemette Laurens (Mezzo Soprano),
Ann Monoyios (Soprano),
Lynne Dawson (Soprano),
Gilles Cachemaille (Baritone)
John Eliot Gardiner
Lyon Opera Orchestra
Written: 1772-1774; Vienna, Austria
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