Gluck's 'Iphigenia in Aulis,' Marriage or Murder? Gluck's innovative and expressive drama tells the classic story of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia, who comes to Aulis for a wedding only to find that her own father has offered her to the gods as a human sacrifice.
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An Audio Introduction to the Opera

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

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

From the Rome Opera

An Audio Introduction to the Opera

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At the end of Act Two, Agamemnon decides that he loves Iphigenia too much to go through with sacrifice, and begs the goddess Diana to take his life, instead. In Rome, the role was sung by bass Alexey Tikhomirov.

Agamemnon's Prayer

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The B Side

One of the opera's most tender moments comes in the last act, when Iphigenia sings a final farewell to Achilles. The Rome production featured soprano Krassimira Stoyanova as Iphigenia.

Iphigenia's Farewell

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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.

Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova sings the title role in the Rome Opera's production of Iphigenia in Aulis. Corrado Maria Falsini hide caption

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Corrado Maria Falsini

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.

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The Story of 'Iphigenia in Aulis'

Clytemnestra (Ekaterina Guberova) offers her own life in place of Iphigenia's, in the Rome production of Gluck's opera. Corrado Maria Falsini hide caption

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Corrado Maria Falsini

Agamemnon (bass Alexey Tikhomirov) is torn between love for his daughter and the deadly promise he made to the goddess Diana. Corrado Maria Falsini hide caption

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Corrado Maria Falsini


  • Krassimira Stoyanova .... Iphigenia
  • Alexey Tikhomirov ..... Agamemnon
  • Ekaterina Guberova ..... Clytemnestra
  • Avi Klemberg ..................... Achilles
  • Beatriz Diaz ......................... Diana
  • Maxim Kuzmin-Caravaev ..... Calchas
  • Carlos Garcia-Ruiz ................ Arcas
  • Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Riccardo Muti, conductor

The opera's libretto is based on a play by Racine, which in turn comes from the ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, the young woman whose father, King Agamemnon, was ordered to sacrifice her to earn favors from the gods.

As Act One begins, Agamemnon and his army are stranded in Aulis. They were on their way to Troy when their ships were stopped by calm weather. Agamemnon hoped the goddess Diana might help him out, but Diana demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia in return for her assistance.

So Agamemnon sent word back to Greece that Iphigenia should sail to Aulis on the pretense that she was to marry her beloved, Achilles. But Agamemnon then had second thoughts, and sent another messenger, Arcas, to tell his daughter that Achilles had betrayed her with another woman. Agamemnon hoped that revelation — also a lie — might prompt Iphigenia to stay home.

Still, Agamemnon defies Diana, refusing to sacrifice Iphigenia. But he knows that if his daughter does show up on Aulis, he won't be able to save her.

And she does show up. The message from Arcas never got through. So both Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra arrive in Aulis expecting a wedding to Achilles. Hoping to send them packing, Agamemnon tells Clytemnestra the phony story about Achilles and his infidelity. But Achilles catches wind of this and denies it all. That convinces Iphigenia, and the two sing a duet to affirm their love.

At the start of Act Two, Iphigenia's companions assure her that the wedding will happen as planned. Clytemnestra agrees, saying that Agamemnon has now agreed to the marriage.

There's a series of festive dances, hailing the bravery of Achilles. But as the celebrations end, Arcas blurts out the truth — the upcoming ceremony will be a sacrifice, not a wedding. Clytemnestra begs Achilles to save Iphigenia. Iphigenia seems inclined to respect Agamemnon's wishes, and at first, Achilles reluctantly agrees to go along with her.

But when the two men are alone, Achilles tells Agamemnon that if he's determined to sacrifice his daughter, he'll have to kill Achilles first. The act ends with an extended solo scene, with Agamemnon expressing his deep love for Iphigenia, and asking the goddess Diana to be content with his life instead of his daughter's.

But in Act Three, a chorus of Greeks angrily demands that Agamemnon go ahead with the sacrifice. Iphigenia does have a chance to escape the island, but she turns it down, in loyalty to her father. Achilles then finds Iphigenia, and wants her to leave with him. She says that she's determined to fulfill her destiny, and sings him a final goodbye.

Iphigenia's mother Clytemnestra is also determined to save her. But in an emotional solo scene, she has a vision of the sacrifice. As she imagines Agamemnon killing Iphigenia, Clytemnestra calls out a desperate prayer to Jupiter. As the scene ends, she hears a Greek procession, heading for the sacrificial ceremony.

In the final scene, Iphigenia is kneeling at a seaside altar. The high priest Calchas is behind her, praying, and holding the sacred knife.

But as the Greeks sing a ceremonial hymn, they're interrupted by Achilles, who storms in with his men. There's a brief skirmish, halted by dramatic news that relieves the opera's tension and brings it to an end. The goddess Diana has had a change of heart, and the sacrifice is no longer required.