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Gluck's 'Iphigenia in Aulis,' Marriage or Murder?

What do the 18th-century opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and the present day film director Lars von Trier have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out, including a genuine disregard for the status quo.

Von Trier is one of today's most controversial movie makers. At this year's Cannes Festival, his much anticipated film Antichrist drew both cheers and cat-calls — and only one award, for its lead actress. Yet along with the uproar von Trier often causes, he's also made a real mark on contemporary film.

Back in the 1990's, von Trier and some colleagues began a movement called Dogme 95. Distressed by the artificiality of commercial movies, they urged a return to the basics, and implemented a set of directives toward that end. All cameras should be handheld; no artificial lighting or digital special effects were permitted; stories should take place in real time and depict genuine emotions, with no extreme violence or histrionics. It could be argued that von Trier has at times abandoned much of that template. Still, the work of Dogme 95's adherents brought new attention to the often simpler aesthetics of independent film making.

In the 1700s, Gluck did something similar for opera, in reaction to a genre called opera seria which had dominated Europe's opera houses for decades. It was a type of opera in which virtuoso singers were the stars, with composers and librettists obeying strict formal and musical contrivances intended to make sure those stars were heard in their full glory — often at the expense of realistic drama and musical invention.

Gluck reacted to this by turning to some basics of his own. Calling opera seria "ridiculous and tedious," he wrote dramas emphasizing straightforward musical forms that respected the libretto's story and poetry. He replaced long, technically cumbersome arias with shorter and more direct solo numbers, interwoven with highly-expressive declamatory singing, simple ensembles, and choruses that played a true part in the story's action.

After playing a major role in establishing Italian opera on the stages of Vienna, Gluck took his reform movement to France with Iphigenia in Aulis — the classic story of a young woman whose father summons her for a wedding, and instead offers her up as a human sacrifice. Gluck also ruffled some feathers in the process, creating quite a stir at the tradition-bound Paris Opera by suggesting that all of its performers — from the principals to the choristers — should be ordered to act their roles, not just sing them.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Iphigenia in Aulis from the Rome Opera. Riccardo Muti conducts, with soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in the title role and bass Alexey Tikhomirov as Iphigenia's father Agamemnon, who is ordered by the gods to murder his daughter. The Rome production also features a fascinating, alternative ending created by one of Gluck's later admirers, Richard Wagner, in 1847.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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