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The Story of 'Iphigenia in Aulis'

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.

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