Orfeo ed Euridice, or Orphée et Euridice, might be Gluck’s most popular and frequently encountered opera, but the practically unheard of and unseen Iphigénie en Tauride is a greater one.
An extremely rare opportunity presents itself at the Lyceum Theatre on Tuesday, the 5th of April when English Touring Opera presents its staging of the opera which has garnered highly favourable reviews.
Gluck has never been fashionable but among the 30-plus operas he wrote before his death in 1787 there are at least half-a-dozen masterpieces that were to be a major influence, initially on Mozart – Idomeneo (1781) – and subsequently, Berlioz, Weber and Wagner.
2014 was Gluck’s 300th birthday year and it passed by without trumpet fanfares and yet his importance in the development of opera as a believable art form cannot be trumpeted enough.
He reformed the genre, giving it a more flowing and dramatic style that did away with continuo-accompanied recitative interrupting the action and the excesses and conventions of opera seria – da capo arias were out for start!
Among other things was blurring the distinction between recitative and aria, less repetition of text in arias and generally focussing on the human drama and passion while giving words and music equal importance in a desire to create music drama.
In effect, in the process he went back to the beginnings of opera, which had been born out of Greek mythology and drama; bringing us back to Iphigénie en Tauride, or Iphigenia on Tauris, his penultimate opera staged in Paris in 1779 to a libretto drawn from Euripides.
Arguably, it was the summit of Gluck’s ‘reforms’, which actually began with Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762.
There is no overture, just a short orchestral passage of calm that gives way to mighty storm on the island of Tauris where the goddess Diana has transported Iphigenia after her father Agamemnon had tried to sacrifice her.
In a nutshell, it concerns her as a high priestess of Diana attempting to save her brother Orestes, washed up on the island by the storm whom she believed dead and is slow to recognise (ditto: he in reverse), from he himself being sacrificed.
There is much fine, rarely heard music in the opera, its best known number probably being Iphigenia’s Ô malheureuse Iphigénie towards the end of act two (the opera is in four acts) and it has one highly unusual feature for an opera – there is no love or romantic interest!