opera-inside, IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE, Gluck, Synopsis, Handlung

Online opera guide & synopsis to Gluck’s IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE

Together with his “Orfeo ed Euridice”, “Iphigenia on Tauris” is Gluck’s masterpiece. The melodies are straightforward and beautiful, the orchestration is gripping, the drama is coherent and the three main roles are captivating personalities and demand great, mature artists.







♪ Act I  (Thunderstorme scene, Temple scene)

♪ Act II  (Dungeon scene)

♪ Act III  (Friendship scene)

♪ Act IV  (Temple scene, Finale)


Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation



Introduction et choeur

O toi qui prologea mes jours 

Unis dès la plus tendre enfance

O malheureux Iphigénie

Les dieux, lingtemps en courroux (Finale)











Paris, 1779


Nicolas Francois Guillard basierend auf Iphigénie en Tauride von Claude Guimond de La Touche.

The main roles

Diana, Greek goddess (soprano) - Iphigenia, priestess of Diana and daughter of Agamemnon (soprano) - Orest, brother of Iphigenia (baritone) - Pylades, friend and companion of Orest (tenor) - Thoas, ruler of Tauris (bass)

Recording recommendation

No special recommendation








Calzabigi, the librettist of reform operas – the drama as the basis

In the first forty years of his life Gluck was literally active as a musician throughout Europe. He gained a deep insight into the opera practice of the continent. His impression was that music theatre suffered from the stencil-like nature of the characters and the sometimes grotesque nature of the plots. In addition, the works were sung by singers who sometimes decorated the music beyond recognition. Drama, ethics and real feelings had disappeared from the stage.

To counter this, Gluck was first of all dependent on a suitable librettist, a real dramatist and lyricist. He found him in the person of Raniero de Calzabigi. The Italian Calzabigi wrote for the German composer, among others, because he was repelled by the noisy and chaotic Italian theatre business. As late as 1778, he wrote about the Neapolitan audience: “Who would have thought of performing a Greek tragedy in front of such an idiotic audience?

Their first joint work was “Orfeo ed Euridice” from 1762, which was premiered in Vienna and is considered the first reform opera. It was an immediate success. The convincing libretto and the great music were immediately accepted. Also the follow-up work of the two, Alceste, became a triumph.

Also the librettist of “Iphigenia in Tauris”, which followed 17 years later, Nicolas Francois Guillard, must be dedicated a great wreath. The plot of the drama follows a coherent line and the three main characters are captivating personalities. Gluck influenced the libretto and even categorically rejected Guillard’s first draft.



Protection from the highest authority

In the meantime, Gluck moved to Paris and enjoyed the protection of Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, who spoke the same language as Gluck in Germany. The later French queen had received singing lessons from Gluck in her Viennese youth and was (as the 18-year-old wife of Dauphin Ludwig) already his patron at Gluck’s Parisian Iphigenie in Aulis.



Paris – “city of screamers”

The singing culture that Gluck encountered in Paris must have been awful. Marie-Antoinette brought Gluck in to teach Parisians how to sing. Even the 22-year-old Mozart, who was in Paris in 1778, was not very flattered by the singing in Paris: “Singing! – oimè! – If only no Frenchwoman sang Italian arias. I would still forgive her her French blubbering, but to spoil good music is unbearable … They do not sing, they scream at the top of their lungs.”  Gluck was also highly irritated by the French art of singing. To his Parisian Orpheus, he said: “Unbelievable, sir, you always scream when you’re supposed to sing, and if you have to scream just once, you never make it!”



Gluck’s reform opera and the crossroads of opera

Gluck, in harmony with Calzabigi, envisioned that the music should support the plot of the drama and not vice versa. The primacy of drama demanded comprehensibility of text and straightforward yet melodic lines. The separation into accompanied recitative and a songlike aria were further elements. The effect he exerted on his audience with his reform operas was tremendous. Gluck’s contemporary Abbé Martini wrote about Iphigenia: “Far from burying the words in a myriad of tones, he also used few more notes than there were syllables in the verses; but the tones he chose are always true, passionate and sanctioned by nature” (source: Pahlen, Opernlexikon).

Of course there were also opponents of the reform. In this respect, the composer Picinni was stylized by the “Italian faction” as a competitor of Gluck, whom he was not actually. It is a fact that with Gluck’s reform opera, opera creation reached a crossroads that led to an Italian and a German version in the following decades.



Success in Paris

5 years earlier, Gluck made his debut in Paris with the predecessor work “Iphigenie in Aulis”. With the second Iphigenia he was also able to celebrate a great success from the premiere on. He was the composer in Paris for a long time.



But nowadays hardly ever played

Nowadays one hears the work only rarely. This is certainly not due to the quality of the music, but because the music of the pre-classical period has gone out of fashion.



The German version of Iphigenia

There is also an adapted German version, which Gluck wrote for Vienna a few years later, but which did not bring about any major changes musically. Mozart is said to have been an interested observer of stage work.

120 years later Richard Strauss has reworked the opera. It did not receive much attention, however, because everyone justifiably asked themselves why one should change a completed masterpiece.








In order to understand the plot, it is worth knowing the prehistory.

Prehistory: Tantalus, a demigod was popular with the gods and was invited to celebrate with them. He wanted to take the opportunity and stole nectar and ambrosia from them to gain immortality in his turn. The gods noticed the theft and punished him with eternal banishment to the underworld. Three generations later. His great-grandson Agamemnon, who led the Greeks against the Trojans, was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Diana to provide favorable winds for his army. He resisted, but Iphigenia was willing to sacrifice herself in Aulis.  Diana, moved by her sublimity, took Iphigenia and secretly made her a priestess on the island of Tauris. Iphigenia was not the only child of Agamemnon. He had three other children with Clytemnestra: Orest, Elektra and Chrysothemis. In order to avenge Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisth killed Agamemnon. Orest, enraged by the murder of his beloved father, killed his mother. When Orest asked the oracle how he could atone for the matricide, it sent him to Tauris without telling him about his sister. Orest is now on his way to the island, together with his faithful friend Pylades.


Synopsis: In the temple of Diana on the island of Tauris. A storm is raging. Iphigenia and the priestesses beg the Gods for appeasement.

This opera begins with a pastoral scene. After a short time the music changes into a rising thunderstorm scene. Gluck has written a breathtaking music for this passage; the rain, hail and lightning are magnificently painted.

Introduktion et choeur  –  Minkowski



Iphigenia’s Dream Tale

Synopsis: But Iphigenia can not calm down. The storm continues to rage inside her. She tells about her dream. She saw her parents’ castle. Her father lying dead on the ground, murdered by her mother. Iphigenie’s brother Orest came and executed his mother in revenge. Finally she saw herself raising the sacrificial knife against her beloved brother Orest. She is desperate and believes her brother dead. Still the curse of Tantalus hovers over the family.

The introduction merges seamlessly into the spectacular performance of Iphigenia, who in a state of dissipation asks the gods for mercy, one of the highlights of the opera.

Le calme reparait  –  Deutsch



Iphigenie’s «O toi qui prologea mes jours »

Synopsis: Iphigenie does not want to live anymore and turns to the goddess Diana to unite her with her brother Orest in the afterlife.

Iphigenie’s great da-capo aria (A-B-A) in Act I, “Ô toi, qui prolongeas mes jours” (“O you who once saved me”), in which she asks Diana to let her die, is marked by noble simplicity. It is an “Aria di cantilena” composed at a slow tempo and with long lines, to be sung with perfect legato.

O toi qui prologea mes jours  –  Crespin



Iphigenie’s opponent appears

Synopsis: Thoas, the ruler of Tauris, steps to her. He too is troubled. The oracle has foretold him that he will die unless he makes a human sacrifice first. Iphigenia doesn’t believe that blood and murder can be used to appease the Gods. But Thoas is in turmoil.

Gluck skilfully places this aria of the barbarian king after the simple inward aria of Iphigenia, creating the highest possible contrast.

De noirs pressentiments  –  Karimov



Synopsis: His warriors demand a sacrifice to appease the gods and tell of two Greeks whose boat was washed ashore by the storm and captured by the Scythians.

With the stylistic device of shrill piccolos and loud drums, Gluck draws the picture of the barbarian Scythians of the island of Tauris (today’s Crimea).

Les dieux apaisent leur courroux



The ballet of the first act

Synopsis: Thoas determines to sacrifice the two and instructs the warriors to take them to the temple.

Ballett  –  Keilberth










Gluck borrows many of the pieces from his old operas

Synopsis: When the Greeks arrive in the hall, Thoas asks what brought them here, but the two do not reveal the secret. They are taken to the cell. Orest is shocked that he has led his friend to his death..

Gluck has reused about ten pieces of this opera from his older works. “Dieux qui me poursuivez ”  for example is  from “Telemaco”. This was quite common at that time. For financial reasons there were even operas that consisted entirely of “recycled” pieces, so-called “Pasticcio operas”.

Dieux qui me poursuivez  –  Allen



Pylades great aria « Unis des la plus tendre enfance »

Synopsis: But Pylades does not want to hear about it, he is proud to die with his friend. Together they celebrate their friendship, which has lasted since their childhood days.

We hear this aria in two interpretations.

Fritz Wunderlich was able to give this aria the shine it needs. Pylades’ pain and confidence of get a wonderful nobility and intensity.

Nur einen Wunsch, nur ein Verlangen (1)  –  Wunderlich


Georges Till’s (1897-1984) voice exerts a very special charm. A little vibrato, a clarity of voice and an exquisite tone let the aria appear in the most beautiful light. Especially his French diction is natural and proves that the language is suitable for singing, even if many singers make some pieces difficult to bear with their unnatural and bad pronunciation.

Unis dès la plus tendre enfance (2)  –  Thill



Synopsis: Guards enter the cell and separate the two as the ceremony requires. Orest is full of pain at being separated from his friend.

Le calme rentre dans mon cœur  –  Gilfrey



The magnificent setting of Orest’s Nightmare

Synopsis: Orest falls asleep from exhaustion. The gods of revenge dance around him and Orest sees the shadow of Clytemnestra in his sleep.

Furies leave Orest in a restless sleep. When he wakes up he sings hurried phrases expressing his inner conflict, Orest suddenly sings a quieter melody (in A major, which says that his heart is finally returning) but in the orchestra threatening trombones and sharp rhythmic beats sound, which tell lies to his words. When Gluck was asked about this apparent contradiction, he is said to have said: “Orest is lying. What he thinks is calm is only exhaustion, but the Furies do not sleep… finally he killed his mother!

Vengeons et la nature et les dieux en courroux  –  Minkowski



Iphigenia’s desperate «O malheureux Iphigénie» 

Synopsis: It’s morning. The door to the cell opens and Iphigenia enters Orests’ cell. Orest is bewildered. Her features remind him of his sister. Iphigenia wants to know about the unknown man, where he comes from. When he calls Mycenae, she is agitated. She wants to know what happened to Agamemnon, and Orest tells the story of murder and the revenge of his son. When Iphigenia wants to know what happened to the son, he claims the son died. Iphigenia is heartbroken. When she leaves the cell, the priestesses try to comfort her. Iphigenia deeply feels  abandoned, her parents and her brother are all lost forever.

“O malheureux Iphigénie” is a great Italian aria that Gluck presented to the French audience. It is the psychological drama of Iphigenia.

We hear Maria Callas, who was an outstanding interpreter of Gluck’s works. She sang both Orfeo and Iphigenia on stage. Callas’ makes the despair of Iphigenia felt in the most painful way, a haunting interpretation.

O malheureux Iphigénie  –  Callas


Gluck took the aria from his opera “la clemenza di Tito”.  It was perhaps Gluck’s most famous aria. We hear this aria with the beautiful oboe accompaniment and the title “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto”. It is the hero’s farewell to his beloved. The castrato Caffarelli sang it in the 1850s.

We hear Cecilia Bartoli with this piece from her wonderful CD with Gluck arias.

O malheureux Iphigénie  –  Bartoli



Synopsis: To say goodbye to her brother she holds a funeral ceremony together with the priestesses.

Contemplez ces tristes apprêts










Synopsis: Homesick, she decides that one of the prisoners will be released so that he can deliver a message to Elektra. She thinks of the prisoner, whose features so deceptively resemble those of Orests. She goes to the two Greeks and delivers the message.

In Gluck’s reform opera, recitative and aria were the main carriers. The synopsis was transferred to the recitative, so that terzettos like this were rare.

Je pourrais du tyran tromper  la barbarie



Orest and Pylades – Friendship until death

Synopsis: But neither of them is willing to live at the expense of the other.

Nowadays, one would call the connection between Pylades and Orest homoerotic. But this would be questionable in historical understanding, because in the 18th century it was common practice to write interchangeable female and male roles. Thus, such a scene did not provoke any ambiguity for the viewers of that time.

Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes


Synopsis: Orest can’t stand the fact that his friend dies for him and threatens to kill himself. But Pylades does not want to see his friend die.

Ah mon ami! J’implore ta pitié


Synopsis: Finally Pylades fulfils the wish of his friend. Orest is taken away and Iphigenia hands Pylades the letter intended for Elektra. Secretly Pylades swears to save his friend.

Gluck composed a fiery oath of pylad.

Divinité des grandes armes  –  Gedda









Synopsis: Iphigenia is alone in the temple. She is disgusted by her office, which forces her to perform the sacrificial ritual with her own hands.

Gluck composes a dissonant, dramatic and moving scene, which is composed somewhat more virtuously than the other arias of Iphigenia.

Je t’implore et je tremble o déesse implacable –  Horne



The role of the choir

Synopsis: The priestesses bring the sacrifice to Iphigenia, whose heart is torn apart.

Goethe wrote his work “Iphigenia in Tauris” in the same year as Gluck. Whoever knows this work will recognize some differences to Gluck’s Iphigenia. One of the striking differences is that Goethe’s counterpart to Iphigenia is not the “it” (scenically represented by the choir), but the upgraded role of the thoas. In Gluck’s work, the choir (consisting of Greeks, Scythians, priestesses) is still physically and musically omnipresent, in keeping with the ancient model.

O Diane sois- nous propice


Synopsis: Orest is ready to die and moved by the pity of Iphigenia. The priestesses solemnly decorate the sacrifice.

This choral piece is of sublime beauty. It is a two-voice chorale by the priestesses.

Chaste fille de Latone


Synopsis: When Iphigenie is handed the knife and has to stab, Orest reveals himself as her brother. Full of joy Iphigenie drops the knife. Thoas rushed over. He has heard that Iphigenia does not obey the sacrifice order and demands that she carry out the sacrifice. At that moment Pylades storms in with Greek soldiers and strikes Thoas down. The Scythians want to avenge the death of their king.


De te forfaits la trame (Duett mit Chor)



The «lieto fine » of the Opera

Synopsis: The goddess Diana descends from a cloud and the fighters fall to their knees. She proclaims that the Scythians have too long degraded her with their savage sacrifices. Turning to Orest, she declares that the curse of his family is banished and that he and Iphigenia should return to Mycenae: Orest is happy that he may return with his sister. And everyone is happy that the gods are reconciled again.

Gluck’s ending deviates from Euripide’s story, in whose story Iphigenia must flee with Orest. The libretti of the opera seria usually foresaw a happy ending, the so-called “lieto fine”. This convention comes from the supefather of the librettists of this generation, Pietro Metastasio. Although the outstanding writer achieved a spectacular success with his first libretto (“Didone abbandonata” set to music by Sarrro), the tragic ending was heavily criticized. This was a lesson to him, and he wrote the rest of his 39 operas with a lieto fine: as a rule, the synopsis takes a surprising turn, a process of purification (here with the appearance of Pylades and Diana), which makes the characters shine more mature (with the exception of Thoas, which will only be purified by Goethe).

In Paris, the choirs were popular with the public and in the theatres they were large, with up to 50 people on stage. From Vienna or even Italy, Gluck was not used to such choir sizes, and he exploited them brilliantly in this opera. We end the opera portrait with the beautiful final chorus.

Les dieux, lingtemps en courroux



Recording recommendation of the opera IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE


No specific recommendation.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE by Christoph Willibald Gluck.



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