Born in the Upper Palatinate, currently in Germany, in 1714 and raised in Bohemia, Christoph Williband Gluck spent his most creative years in Paris, where he reached high popularity on the very vibrant operatic scene. He is credited for refashion the opera format from its baroque beginnings to a more fluid and popular art. His later opera are on average half the length of a typical baroque opera. He started his career as a composer in Vienna at the Imperial Court and then moved to Paris in 1773, interested in bringing together the French and Italian operatic traditions. He moved back to Vienna in 1779 never to return to Paris
Gluck’s initial career was spent in Italy and in London where he was a sought after composer of comic operas. He was actually commissioned several times for compositions to celebrate the Carnival in Milan, Turin and Venice. During these years the established a love-hate professional relationship with the poet Metastasio who was the most popular librettista of these times. Gluck composed several operas with the libretto written by Metastasio, and most notably La clemenza di Tito, premiered in 1752 at the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, performed with the famous singer Caffarelli in the role of Sextus.
Gluck’s most successful opera is probably the one he wrote and staged for the Opéra de Paris in 1779. He was commissioned by the Parisian opera house to compose inspired by Euripides’ Classical Greek tragedy, Iphygénie en Tauride. This in itself was a major shift from traditional operatic setting as there is no love story in this play but it is a representation of a family saga of Agamemnon’s son and daughter. In addition to the story subject, Gluck also brought into this composition his thinking about opera reformation, with less space left to the inclusion of ballet and recitative sections. Most notably he introduces an aria where the orchestral part is in clear contrast with the singing. This was justified by the psychological distance between the words spoken by the character and his true feelings.
I just saw a very recent representation of Iphygénie en Tauride at the Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, under the direction of Krzysztof Warlikowski, who has transposes the work into the context of a retirement home, where the heroine, Iphygénie, transfixed as an ageing resident, is haunted by her past. I was not particularly convinced by the post-modern setting of the story but the interpretation by the two main singers, Tara Erraught in the main character role, and Jarrett Ott as Oreste was really powerful and brought new colours to this evergreen drama.
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