Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) was Gluck’s penultimate opera, written in Paris and premiered there, before the cool reception of what turned out to be his final opera, Echo et Narcisse, caused him to return to Vienna where he composed little but church music for the rest of his life. Iphigénie crowns the output of a composer who made significant strides in the development of music-drama as a viable art form through his “reform operas” such as this one, which looks back to the directness of diction which the French operatic tradition had prized since Lully and Rameau, and lays the foundations for the even greater symphonic structures in operas by Mozart, Weber and, eventually, Wagner.
Riccardo Muti captures the essence of both worlds in this re-issued recording made from live performances at La Scala, though the commanding grandeur of his interpretation is untouched by the aesthetic of historically-informed performance practice and sounds as if set down earlier than 1992 – John Eliot Gardiner’s highly regarded and sprightlier account was made seven years previously. Muti’s stands in the tradition of grand opera and a full-scale symphony orchestra does full justice, to the sustained drama of the storm near the beginning of the opera, presaging the way in which the arrival on Tauris of the foreign Oreste and Pylade will ultimately topple Thoas’s hold on power. However, there is also considerable subtlety in Muti’s conducting, with lyrical beauty in the very opening bars before the tempest is unleashed, and a gravely foreboding atmosphere in the chorus and march of the priestesses at the end of Act Two, though the chorus of the Eumenides (the Furies) in the same Act is surprisingly relaxed.
The recording conveys all the presence and tension of a live performance, which is largely to its advantage, and the engineers have done a good job in erasing any extraneous noise from the audience, as applause at the end of each Act is about the only time its presence is audible. The disadvantage is that the singers often strongly declaimed so that their voices may be carried around the auditorium, which is suitable to the public scenes, but not for private ones, though the soloists’ approach tends to be moderated to some extent in the third and fourth Acts.
Carol Vaness makes for an impressively imperious Iphigénie at the opening, though subsequent dialogue need not have been so strident. Happily she is less strenuous and more radiant by the time of her aria at the opening of Act Four. Giorgio Surian is a tonally well-rounded Thoas, even in his higher register, which is also true of Gösta Winbergh as Pylade. On the latter’s first appearance he combines baritonal weight with the vocal heroism one would expect in such a tenor role – his scene in the dungeon at the opening of Act Two anticipates Florestan’s equivalent predicament in Fidelio, though his subsequent aria ‘Unis dès la plus tender enfance’ might have encapsulated a little more tenderness. Thomas Allen is an equally heroic Oreste, but disappointingly sounds a little stretched at times, and in his aria ‘Le calme renter dans mon coeur’ in Act Two, although he rightly drops the volume, he does not make up for that with a correspondingly more nuanced means of expression in order to sustain interest.
In general Muti and his ensemble inhabit the drama from within, creating an urgent and compelling account of a work which will surely convince listeners of the still-underestimated and important position which Gluck holds in the history of opera if they are not already familiar with his output; only the purist or musical ideologue would aver that the performance style is an anachronism. The booklet contains a cued synopsis of the opera but no libretto.