Gluck: Iphigenia in Aulis Import
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Opéra en trois actes - version révisée par R. Wagner (1847) / Camilla Nylund (Iphigenia) - Michelle Breedt (Klytämnestra) - Christian Elsner (Achilles) - Oliver Zwarg (Agamemnon) - Raimund Nolte (Kalchas)... - Chorus Musicus Köln - Das Neue Orchester - Christoph Spering, direction
There is, however, a long tradition of "Iphigénie en Aulide" being performed in Germany in Wagner's version as "Iphigenie" - or, sometimes, as here, "Iphigenia" - in Aulis; a young Otto Klemperer was inspired by hearing Gustav Mahler own staging and conducting of it in 1907. There are only four recordings in the catalogue of this Wagner "overpainting" of Gluck's score, dating back to excerpts of a live performance conducted by Leopold Ludwig in 1942, the other three being live or radio broadcasts and for the most recent of those, we must go back to 1972 for a performance conducted by Karl Eichhorn with a starry cast including Anna Moffo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Trudeliese Schmidt, Ludovic Spiess, Thomas Stewart, Bernd Weikl and Arleen Augér. Unlike this, new issue, none of those provides the complete score, so we are hardly overburdened with recordings and there must be room for one as good as this.
The original French version was first performed in 1774 and revised by Gluck in 1775 to introduce the goddess Diana in person to absolve Agamemnon and permit Iphigenia and Achilles to marry. No doubt this ending would have scandalised authorial plot sources Euripides and Racine; Gluck himself dismissed the dancing in the wedding ceremony as "capering about" and indeed in the sequel he reverts to the illogical non sequitur of Iphigenia's still being a virgin; clearly he was exasperated by the need to provide a "happy ending" to pander to the taste of the French court. If you want to hear that first, authentic version, turn to John Eliot Gardiner's superb 1987 recording headed by José van Dam's noble Agamemnon
However, Wagner rewrote the ending to conform to his own aesthetic philosophy, following neither tragic nor comedic conventions but instead providing a logical conclusion to his depiction of Iphigenia's dilemma. Rather like Senta, Iphigenia becomes less of a victim and more a symbol of transfiguration through self-abnegation, although instead of sacrificing herself on the altar or devoting herself to Achilles in marriage, she is granted an apotheosis, Semele-style, whereby Artemis (Diana) whisks her off to be her eternal acolyte in some unspecified ethereal location. Wagner's libretto is in fact rather closer to Euripides than Racine and he echoes Berlioz's "Les troyens" and his "Tannhäuser" ("Nach Rom!"), premiered two years earlier, by having Agamemnon, Achilles and all proclaim, "Nach Troja!" in an heroic peroration.
The extent of Wagner's interference has led some critics and academics to consider this adaptation of Gluck to constitute essentially a new work, although only about 10% of the music is newly written by Wagner. He was of course a great admirer of Gluck, even if he did not totally understand him, and certainly "Iphigénie en Aulide" is the opera amongst Gluck's oeuvre which most readily lent itself to accommodating Wagner's own ideas about dramaturgy. He simplifies and tightens up the plot by deleting the ballet and three minor characters, and virtually eliminating Patroclus, thereby concentrating on Iphigenia's psychomachia. Although about a quarter of the score is jettisoned, he then wrote link passages to effect a kind of "through-composed" impression whereby recitative and aria are merged. He re-wrote roles to accommodate the tessituras of different voice categories - thus Agamemnon is no longer a lyric baritone but a bass-baritone and the haut-contre tenor Achilles for whom Gluck wrote becomes a dramatic tenor. He re-scored virtually every bar, thickening and stiffening textures by doubling the violas, enhancing the woodwind, timpani and the brass lines and constantly adding horns. The result is not uniformly felicitous: the extra horns in the overture can sound overbearing and bombastic in the context of Gluck's stately elegance and at times his translation does not always sit neatly on the music, German having too many consonants to crowd into Gluck's melodic line. Broadly speaking, however, what we hear is Gluck's melodies and harmonies adapted to Wagner's manner and orchestration, which are often reminiscent of the three works written during his seven years in Dresden: "Der fliegende Holländer" (1843); "Tannhäuser" (1845) and "Lohengrin" (premiered in Weimar in 1850, after he had fled).
Christoph Spering is one of a handful of Historically Aware conductors whose work I invariably find interesting and usually admire; the others include Philippe Herreweghe and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The booklet includes a transcription of an informative and stimulating conversation between him and musicologist editor Dr. Norbert Bolín, to which I am indebted for help in writing this review. For this recording, Spering adopts a very slightly lower than modern pitch of 437 Hz and deliberately chose singers with large, dramatic voices, presumably to reflect Wagner's intentions and match his beefed-up orchestration.
In general, his two leading ladies are superior to the male singers: both have vibratos which can be rather too pronounced but their big, vibrant voices convey the drama and tension of their plights. Camilla Nylund makes a lovely job of Iphigenia's beautiful aria "Bald von Fürchten" which opens Act II and Michelle Breedt's Klytämnestra is compelling in the depth of her maternal feeling. A word of praise, too, for the silvery soprano of aptly named Mirjam Engel, who makes the most of her brief appearance as the "dea ex machina".
I am less impressed by the sturdy but rather ordinary Agamemnon and Kalchas both of whom lack glamour of tone, especially when compared with the sublime van Dam for Gardiner; how I miss the soaring nobility of his opening "Diane impitoyable" for Gardiner compared with the prosaic "O Artemis, Erzürnte!" of Oliver Zwarg. Zwarg's bass lacks steadiness and legato in his early aria "Kann vom Vater" and in his big number at the end of Act II the top of his voice lacks ease; the tone thins and dries out too readily.
Christian Elsner has turned into a Heldentenor in the ten years since he recorded "Das Lied von der Erde" with Fischer-Dieskau (a previously celebrated, young Agamemnon in 1951 for Arthur Rother) conducting. As written by Wagner, Achilles is a very tricky part; indeed, Elsner is on record as saying that he would be reluctant to perform it on stage, as it alternates so frequently between lyrical passages and heroic declamation. There are certainly moments of clumsiness in his singing and he struggles with his Third Act aria, "Der Priester", but his weight of voice is elsewhere appropriate.
Spering's chorus and orchestra, both founded by him in the 80's, are terrific; you have only to listen to the opening of Act II to hear their quality. His conducting is excellent, steering the line between the polar extremes of tempi for which Wagner's own conducting was criticised without sacrificing tension. This recording ultimately derives from a German radio production in April last year and Spering's experience with the music shows.
As bonus, we are given the concert version of the overture which otherwise segues straight into Agamemnon's opening lament. I first heard this wonderful music in Klemperer's majestic, stately account. Impressive as that is, Klemperer lingers over its cadences to elongate the timing to eleven and half minutes, whereas Spering more reasonably shaves three minutes off that without sacrificing grandeur.
A German libretto only is provided. I would urge all admirers of both Gluck and Wagner to acquire this recording for both its historical interest and intrinsic musicality; purists may revert to the French version. In this, the anniversary of his birth, there has so far been rather a paucity of tributes to Gluck but this Wagner version will be performed at the Internationale Gluck Opern Festspiele as "Iphigenie in Aulis" in July 2014, at the Staatstheater Nürnberg Schauspielhaus, with Oliver Zwarg reprising his role as Agamemnon.
[This review also posted on the MusicWeb International website]
A: No. It is an opera by Gluck and Wagner.
I can think of no musical composition like it. In the 1840s Wagner was labouring to achieve his vision of the kind of music-drama that would supersede opera as that was then understood and practised. Tannhauser was behind him, but he put Lohengrin aside to adapt Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide as a German work indicating the direction that Wagner proselytised for as being the path forward. Gluck in his time had battled to rationalise opera, Wagner sought to add Gluck’s authority and prestige to his own campaign, and it is not hard to see in this drama of quarrelling gods and their human proxies a theme of the kind that inspired and appealed to him. What appeared in 1847 was no kind of ‘version’ or ‘edition’ of Gluck, therefore. In this new Iphigenia in Aulis what we find is Wagner calling back from Elysium the spirit of his great forerunner in the form of the living material of his musical drama, and embracing and moulding it to be something both fully established and at the same time new and unexampled.
It does not even belong on the same page as Gluck’s original opera, and we can pursue this issue to greater depth by following the long and learned debate between Norbert Brolin and the conductor Christof Spering. I was also interested to see that Das Neue Orchester and Spering himself are dedicated (if I understand this rightly: the English is as opaque as the German) to bringing the kind of precision demanded for ‘authentic’ performance of baroque works to the romantic field also. That is exactly what I seem to find here, and the only ‘authentic’ style for this work is the style it creates for itself.
The recorded sound is basically fine, although without compromising this purity and precision I think a little more vividness and presence would not have come amiss. I felt this particularly in Act 1 where the overture risked seeming to plod. As if to be consistent, much the same could be said of the soloists in the earlier stretches. They do little or nothing that I want to find fault with, but the effect is just slightly bland. Overall the best of the singers is Camilla Nylund (no surprise there) as Iphigenia herself, but as the tension and emotion increase in Act 2 some of the much-wanted vividness begins to make itself felt more generally, and in particular I liked the tenor timbre of Christian Elsner as Achilles. Precision on its own would hardly have been enough to convey the emotions of a commander torn between resisting a divine command to sacrifice his daughter (by way of reparation for a rather trivial slight) and the looming threat of what his own troops might do to him if he disobeys and the invasion fleet stays becalmed. Up to this point I think I find the mounting drama well conveyed, before the plot goes off at a tangent, authenticated from ancient Greek times, when the offended goddess Artemis has a change of heart. She abruptly stops the human sacrifice for herself, so that now the tension has to be very carefully wound down again. Wagner supplies his own ending here, quite reasonably considering that Gluck had had to take two shots at it and did not greatly like either of them. Whether we can blame Euripides for this volte-face I don’t know because the conclusion to his tragedy on this theme is apparently spurious and we have to rely on secondary sources for how he handled it. At least we can feel reasonably sure that the scenario of a tragic heroine wafted away to some higher sphere of existence is one that might have appealed to Wagner.
Overall Wagner tries to keep the plot intelligible and the style continuous, and that would have won him Gluck’s approval. One oddity that I saw was that while the preface to the liner says that the part of Patroclus (the great buddy of Achilles in the Iliad) has been eliminated the final credits tell us that his part is taken by Richard Logiewa, complete with photograph. Perhaps it is a non-singing part I guess. It is also rather strange that this whole episode of the demand for the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, an episode one might think fundamental to the whole story of the Trojan war, does not actually feature in the Iliad. It is there in the Agamemnon and the Choephori of Aeschylus, but in a version where the sacrifice actually happens, and then again in Latin as the example Lucretius chooses to support his denunciation of religion, except that his sacrificial maiden is called Iphianassa, who may or may not be the same person as Iphigenia.
As would be expected, Wagner provides his own orchestration (as well as his own German text and Uebersetzung), and so far as that goes we are in the hands of specialists here. The production is what I might call semi-lavish. The booklet is expensively printed with a plethora of photographs accompanying resumes of everyone involved, there is a handy short summary of the plot and an imposing lengthy discussion, both of these in German with an English version, but the sung text is given in German only. Economic considerations may have prompted this saving, but as the text and plot are only Wagner’s and as such unfamiliar, I have to wonder whether the saving in space might have been better achieved in some different way. That is one fairly minor downside to what I think an important issue. Put out of your mind any knowledge you have of Gluck’s great opera that goes by the same name in French when you hear this. It is something altogether different although intimately related, and I am told that this is the unabridged version. The set ends with the concert version of the Overture.