Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

ONP Garnier, Monday December 19 2016

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Choreography: Claude Bardouil. Iphigénie: Véronique Gens. Oreste: Étienne Dupuis. Pylade: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Thoas: Thomas Johannes Mayer. Diane, Première Prêtresse: Adriana Gonzalez. Deuxième Prêtresse, une Femme Grecque: Emanuela Pascu. Un Scythe, un Ministre: Tomasz Kumiega. Iphigénie (silent role): Renate Jett. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Iphigénie en Tauride was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s first production for the Opéra de Paris, 10 years ago, and was violently booed at the time, but I had never seen it yet. Since then, thanks to the likes of his Makropoulos Case, King Roger or even Parsifal, which he made palatable in the same way some people claim they have ways to make brussels sprouts edible, I’ve become a fan of his, so I was glad to have this chance to discover the missing link – which has now, ainsi va le monde, become something of a Paris Opera classic.

Warlikowski sets the work in a retirement home for very grand old ladies. From that point on, most of the action is flash-backs or going on in the elderly Iphigénie’s mind. This opens up opportunities for what have become Warlikowski-trademark layers of action involving the same characters at different times of life, alongside intriguing details that raise questions rather than presenting ideas or concrete events. An example of the latter would be the projection, in large letters, of Gluck’s dedication of the piece to Marie-Antoinette: should we start seeking parallels between her and Iphigénie? This is the kind of thought-provoking stuff I’ve come to like with Warlikowski: he draws you in and sets you wondering, so you’re an active, not just a passive, spectator.

At the start, there’s no curtain, but a transparent screen reflecting Garnier back at us, and an upper-class family grouped, immobile, at the rear of the stage, visible because brightly lit. When the screen rises, behind it we discover a large space – the old people’s home – with green-tiled side walls. On the left a line of showers, on the right, a line of washbasins, above, rows of ceiling fans that will frequently cast their moving shadows on the action below, and at the rear, industrial steel doors with graffiti on. In the far right corner, some club armchairs and a TV set. From photos I’ve seen, the director must have simplified what goes on in this space. In the past, there must have been more extras milling around in ordinary clothes. In the present version, the focus is on the characters and their doubles at various ages and in various garbs (e.g. the young, naked Orestes first loving his mother, then killing her). At the start, the old ladies are walking up and down purposefully in their night clothes. By the interval they’re in formal black, demurely eating cake with forks on a row of chairs on the apron (and as you file out for a drink, you have the unsettling realization that the audience is full of creaking dodderers too, yourself included; is that why the house is reflected back?). By the end, when an apparently royal family lines up in mourning on the left, they’re in black coats complete with medals.

Iphigénie appears first as an even grander old lady than the others, in a gold dress and big, blond hair. Later, the gold dress and big, blond wig are worn by a silent double, as the singing Iphigénie, in red, then in black, grows younger. Thoas makes his first appearance in a wheelchair and his last, having strewn long-stemmed red roses on the stage, slumped with his throat cut by Pylade, in dress uniform, over the edge of a box to the right of the stage. The old, gold-dressed Iphigénie is dead on the floor, under the washbasins.

We had three excellent principals. Étienne Dupuis is a very promising young baritone, and Stanislas de Barbeyrac is a rising star who at present can do no wrong. They could, though, have sung with more dynamic subtlety, their tendency being to belt it out. But that may have been to compensate for the absence of reflective sets, something Véronique Gens, in superb voice, suffered from to some extent, when the orchestra was loud. Thomas Johannes Mayer was presumably miscast: I’ve read he’s a good Wotan, but last night, to his apparent amusement, he was booed. The secondary roles were also very well taken, though Tomasz Kumiega’s French pronunciation was a bit odd.

The orchestra, however, (the Paris Opera orchestra, so using modern instruments) seemed poorly focused, the chorus, singing from the back of the pit, was somewhat disembodied, and Bertrand de Billy’s conducting was rather featureless to me: plain, vanilla…

Still, it was good to see the production, better still to be reminded what a perfectly-crafted, neoclassical “objet d’art” a Gluck opera is, and with such a strong cast of soloists, we had a good evening of it – “une bonne soirée,” as my neighbour commented, pulling on his coat at the end.

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