Nothing makes a bad opera like a bad libretto. Luckily Gluck knew a thing or two…

Bad libretti could destroy opera productions, even if composer and singers were understood to be superlative. This is roughly analogous to cinema today, the only comparable artistic genre, at least in economic terms. Poorly written or clichéd scripts can destroy films, even if the director and the actors are well regarded. And thus it was the case for Gluck in 1779. 

Iphigénie en Tauride was Gluck’s first unequivocal success. The relative debates of Italian and French opera were once again being openly debated in Parisian cafés, salons and journals. Gluck had to appeal to an audience that was more critically sensitive than might have been the case in another city, such as Vienna. The new opera was immediately applauded by audiences and critics alike. A correspondent reported that the work “was in a new style”. He goes on to note that it was a “genuine tragedy, a Greek tragedy, [and one] declaimed more authentically than in the Théâtre française”. He observed that “the varied accents of passion, expressed with the greatest energy, imbue it with an interest unknown till now in the lyric theatre”. Indeed, “[s]ome of the audience were seen to weep from beginning to end”.

“The literary French were in awe of the unique marriage of words and music”

Gluck’s next work for 1779, Écho et Narcisse, could have solidified his career, now at its height thanks to the success of Iphigénie. But it didn’t. Whereas Iphigénie had brought in 5,000 livres a performance, Écho et Narcisse could barely muster 2,000. Why? The wretched libretto. “His supporters have deserted him,” a journalist wrote, “blaming the failure on Baron von Tschudi’s libretto. In truth it would not be possible to read worse words …”. Rehearsals had also been compromised by the first of a series of debilitating strokes that were to plague Gluck for the rest of his life. 

Returning now to the extraordinary success of Iphigénie, we can better understand how the literary French, with their keen appreciation of wordsmithery, were in awe of the unique marriage of words and music. Note that the reaction in the press refers not to the music first but rather to the words, noting the authenticity of their declamation. 

We are privileged indeed to have a letter from Gluck to Guillard, the librettist of Iphigénie, that goes into meticulous detail about the setting of music to words, underlining the care and attention, often forgotten and little appreciated today, that went into this process. 

Gluck makes suggestions to the poet: “I think it necessary to cut the third strophe of the hymn, or to write a more interesting one which does not contain the words ‘le Scythe fier et sauvage’: these words do not contribute to the pathos of the situation.” Conscious of correct French prosody, with its vaunted pedigree, Gluck writes “moreover, the lines must be of the same metrical scheme, four plus four syllables”. Thinking about the singing voice, he furthermore suggests a sample quatrain, “and where I have placed a sign, that syllable must be long and sonorous; the lines must have ten syllables”, referring to the traditionally mellifluous flow of the décasyllabe. But music isn’t completely absent from Gluck’s approach, nor should it be. The last line of a particularly important quatrain “must if possible be sombre, to match the music”. And Gluck is clear to emphasise a particularly operatic approach. “The meaning should always be completed at the end of a line, not at the beginning, nor half-way through the following line.” Why? Because, naturally, “the airs are then better adapted to a flowing melody”. What he means is that this allows him to write melodies which permit the singer to complete the phrase in one breath, and not chop up a long sentence. Thinking so much ahead made Gluck breathless and apologetic: “I explain myself a little confusedly because my head is excited by the music.”

It was this kind of approach that made Gluck the most renowned pedagogue of the time for operatic composition. Approached countless times by would-be composers seeking his tutelage, instead it was Antonio Salieri whom he chose as his protégé. But that is another story… 

Pinchgut Opera performs Iphigénie en Tauride at City Recital Centre, Sydney from December 3-9