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Christoph Willibald Gluck/arr. Richard Wagner: Iphigenia in Aulis
Camilla Nylund (Iphigenia), Michelle Breedt (Klytämnestra), Christian Elsner (Achilles), Oliver Zwarg (Agamemnon), Raimund Nolte (Kalchas), Mirjam Engel (Artemis), Richard Logiewa (Patroklus, Commander), Thilo Dahlmann (Arcas), Das Neue Orchester, Chorus Musicus Köln, Christoph Spering (conductor)
Recorded April 2013 at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne – 124'18
2 CDs Oehms Classics – Notes in German and English; libretto in German

This fine recording boasts a uniquely odd authenticity in that it is an authentic rendering of Richard Wagner’s version (in German, first performed in 1848) of Gluck’s 1774 French opera, Iphigénie en Aulide, based on a play by Jean Racine, itself based on Euripides.

This is Gluck’s less-performed Iphigénie opera, the other being Iphigénie en Tauride, premiered in 1779. A major difference between the two lies in how they begin: the Tauride work starts with a stormy overture that leads directly into a dramatic aria for the title figure. This earlier work has a more measured overture and then a 20-minute scene that gives us the complex back story: Agamemnon (bass) and the high priest Kalchas (bass-baritone) discuss how the gods demand the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. She is to arrive in Aulis in order to marry Agamemnon’s ally, the warrior-king Achilles. Agamemnon, wanting to avoid the sacrifice, has sent a messenger telling Iphigenia that Achilles has backed out of the arrangement. Kalchas urges obedience to the gods’ decree. The two singers (Oliver Zwarg, Agamemnon, and Raimund Nolte, Kalchas) fail to inject much urgency in a stretch of music that comes across as more serviceable than inspired.

Things catch fire, however, with the arrival of Iphigenia (Camilla Nylund), her mother Klytämnestra (Michelle Breedt), and Achilles (Christian Elsner). Nylund maintains a rapt, glowing voice throughout while Elsner displays a youthful, heroic tenor. This Klytämnestra is not the demented harridan of the Richard Strauss Elektra but there is an urgency in the words and music that Michelle Breedt expresses with terrific élan.

The plot then moves along at a good pace. Iphigenia and Achilles express their love for one another and she prepares herself for her marriage. Only at the altar do they discover that the ceremony is for Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Achilles angrily confronts Agamemnon, who backs down and commands his daughter and wife to flee. In the final act, the Greek warriors demand the sacrifice so they can proceed to Troy. Iphigenia declares she is willing to be sacrificed despite the opposition of Achilles and her mother. At this point the goddess Artemis appears and declares that Iphigenia’s willingness to be sacrificed for the greater good has satisfied the gods’ demand and that she will be carried off to be a priestess in a distant land. (This ending differs from that of Gluck’s French version, as well as those of both the Euripides and Racine plays.)

Wagner presented this version of Iphigenia in Aulis in Dresden when he was music director of the city’s royal opera house. He translated it himself and made some plot changes, for example reducing the role of Patroclus. A major difference from the Gluck version lies in the use of brass, with Wagner being much for forward and emphatic. As mentioned above, it isn’t authentic Gluck but it is authentic Gluck/Wagner. The instrumental sound contains definite pre-echoes of Lohengrin, on which he was working at the time (and which would be premiered in 1850) and Das Rheingold. The latter was not performed until 1869 but Wagner began its composition as early as 1852.

The orchestra is Cologne’s Das Neue Orchester (they could use a more distinctive name) founded by Christoph Spering in 1988 with a special focus on music of the Romantic age. It is 50-players strong for this recording and has a lively, transparent sound. The 50-member Chorus Musicus Köln has just the right Gluckian glow. Overall, the pacing seems just fine.

There is one error in the booklet’s plot where it states that Artemis relents because she is impressed with Agamemnon’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter. The German is rather high-flown and abstract, but her intervention follows Iphigenia’s willngness to be sacrificed. (It’s a pity that the libretto is provided in German only.)

The accompanying booklet describes Wagner’s treatment of Gluck’s score as equivalent to an overpainting. The essay understandably tries to make a case for the work, stating that it “should belong to the imperative educational canon for every Wagner expert and friend”. I can only agree.

As a bonus the recording includes Wagner’s arrangement of a concert version of the overture, first performed in Zurich in 1854.

Michael Johnson




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