Iphigénie À Paris: Positioning Gluck Historically in Early Twentieth-Century France

By Gibbons, William | Intersections, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Iphigénie À Paris: Positioning Gluck Historically in Early Twentieth-Century France

Gibbons, William, Intersections

On 18 December 1907, Gluck's opera Iphégenie en Aulide appeared on the Parisian stage, after an absence of more than three-quarters of a century.1 Produced at the Opéra-Comique under the direction of Albert Carré and featuring the famed Lucienne Bréval in the tide role, this production again drew French attention to Gluck and his works, which were lauded in the press, and consequendy by the public. By 1907, Gluck was already a major feature on the Parisian stage-Iphigénie en Aulide was actually the last of his five great "masterpiece" operas to be revived in fin-de-siècle Paris;2 however, this performance was anything but a token revival of another Gluck opera. I contend that this production and the following musical and critical reception represent a battleground in the fight over Gluck's place in French music history.

Positioning Gluck in this manner was no mere academic exercise. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France enacted a major early-music revival.3 New editions of early French music were increasingly common, and more and more concert space was given over to the performance of "ancient" works. Around the turn of the century Gluck came to assume a major place in this revival, but in a complex position. Though German by birth, Gluck lived and worked for an extended period of time in Paris and so was more or less adopted by twentieth-century critics seeking to expand France's musical heritage (an analogous situation to Handel's in England). On the one hand, his "French" works could be seen as the culmination of the tragédie lyrique tradition epitomized by the works of Lully and Rameau. On the other, Gluck as operatic reformer pointed ahead to Wagner and the integration of music and poetry associated with the music-dramas of Bayreuth.

To a certain extent, these two positions could be held simultaneously, particularly given Gluck's dual German/French national identity. Several influential figures on the Parisian musical scene tried to glorify the composer by turning his work into a musical fulcrum-balancing the past on one side and the future on the other. This approach enabled the critics to interpret him both as the last great composer in the tradition of the tragédie lyrique and as a revolutionary. Such a balance was fairly easy to maintain in the abstract. The 1907 Opéra-Comique production of Iphigénie en Aulide, however, seems to have polarized critics, forcing them towards one side or the other.

One particular incident encapsulates this battie: shortly after the premiere of Iphigénie under Carre's direction, Vincent d'Indy wrote a vitriolic letter-d'Indy biographer Léon Vallas describes it as "severe a l'extreme" (Vallas 1950, 71)-to the editor of the journal Comoedia (later reprinted in Le Guide musical) harshly criticizing Carré and his interpretation of the work:

[N]othing is on point in this interpretation: neither the recitatives, too solemn; nor the arias, totally lacking life and expression; nor the orchestra, perfect from the point of view of the notes, absolutely off the mark from the point of view of the accent and style; nor even the ballet... (Le Guide musical, 5 January 1908)4

Within weeks of the Opéra-Comique performance, d'Indy responded by conducting the overture to the opera at the Concerts Lamoureux (to which he had recently been appointed to the position of deputy to Chevillard)-openly criticizing the Opéra-Comique. This course of action was dangerous for an operatic composer, and set in motion d'Indy's estrangement from the institution (Thomson 1996, 162). This highly unusual response raises an important question: what about Carre's production of Iphigénie was so provoking to d'Indy and others?

The answer to that question lies partly in the history of the opera. The work premiered at the Académie Royale de Musique on 19 April 1774, one year after Gluck relocated to France. While Gluck was certainly familiar with the tragedies lyriques of Lully and Rameau, Iphigénie en Aulide was his first opera originally conceived with a French libretto in mind.

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