The Tragedy of Iphigénie: Iphigénie en Aulide et en Tauride in Vienna

Gluck – Iphigénie en Aulide et en Tauride

Diane/Iphigénie – Véronique Gens

Iphigénie/Diane – Lenneke Ruiten

Agamemnon/Thoas – Christoph Pohl

Clytemnestre – Michelle Breedt

Oreste – Stéphane Degout

Pylade – Rainer Trost

Achille – Maxim Mironov

Calchas/Scythe/Le Ministre – Andreas Jankowitsch

Première Prêtresse/Femme grecque – Çiğdem Soyarslan

Deuxième Prêtresse – Johanna Krokovay

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Wiener Symphoniker / Leo Hussain.

Stage director – Torsten Fischer.

Theater an der Wien, Vienna.  Saturday, October 18th, 2014.

The Theater an der Wien is a venue steeped in history.  Opened in 1801 it hosted the world premieres of works as diverse as several of Beethoven’s symphonies and Die Lustige Witwe.  It is a gem of a theatre and certainly a real privilege to attend a performance in such a relatively intimate space.  Since its conversion to a full-time opera house in 2006 it has hosted one of the most interesting and innovative programs in Europe and has established itself as one of the finest houses.

© Armin Bardel
Véronique Gens & Lenneke Ruiten (© Armin Bardel)

Tonight’s performance precisely encapsulated that spirit of innovation and of creating something new.  It was a highly original and creative take on an ancient story performed at the very highest level by a superb cast.  Naturally, I was intrigued as to how they would combine the two operas.  Effectively what we got was a truncated version of Aulide which led seamlessly into Tauride.  Torsten Fischer’s staging showed great originality and logic.  During Aulide, Diane was a constant presence on the stage, watching and reacting to the events unfolding.  As we were moved to Tauride, Diane became Iphigénie and in the final scene the Aulide Iphigénie reappeared but this time as Diane.  Likewise, Aulide ended in the brutal throat-slitting of Iphigénie.  During Tauride, the ghost of Clytemnestre was ever present, observing the scene.  There was a simplicity to the visuals with characters almost exclusively wearing black or white.  Vasilis Triantafillopoulos’ set design was ingenious.  A revolving structure, it continuously gave us new angles on the action and characters and was designed in a way that the stage pictures were constantly changing.  It had a fluidity that was totally captivating and gripping to watch.  Likewise, Fischer gained exceptional performances from a highly accomplished group of singing actors.  The juxtaposition of these two works led to a real sense of the events of the former, feeding into the latter.  The only small downside was musical – not so much for Tauride which was performed almost in its entirety – but due to a number of cuts, Aulide felt somewhat bitty.  Make no mistake however, this is an outstanding piece of theatre.

© Armin Bardel
Maxim Mironov, Lenneke Ruiten, Arnold Schoenberg Chor (© Armin Bardel)

Musically it was equally exceptional.  Véronique Gens gave us a career-defining performance as the Tauride Iphigénie.  Dramatically she was utterly riveting to watch.  Her sorrow as Diane, realizing what she had done, turning into defiance and inner strength as Iphigénie.  Vocally she was glorious.  The voice so round and full, the timbre instantly recognizable.  She incorporated every phrase with meaning, added sensitive embellishments to the line with an easy, liquid legato.  Her wonderful aria ‘ô toi qui prolongeas mes jours’ encapsulated all that was great in her performance, sung with great beauty of tone, impeccable diction and sensitive embellishments.  Likewise ‘ô malheureuse Iphigénie’ was utterly spellbinding.  This was singing at the very highest level, a total performance.  Gens really did hit greatness tonight.

© Armin Bardel
Véronique Gens & Christoph Pohl (© Armin Bardel)

Lenneke Ruiten as the Aulide Iphigénie revealed a creamy soprano that was redolent of Arleen Auger.  She sang sensitively and was a highly watchable stage presence.  The diction was a little on the cloudy side but she certainly had the measure of the role.  Michelle Breedt raged fantastically as Clytemnestre, absolutely gripping to watch.  It’s a role that has a very wide vocal range and I don’t think it always sat happily in the most comfortable part of her voice.  Still, her rich mezzo and verbal acuity are always a pleasure to hear.  Maxim Mironov gave us a fabulously-sung Achille.  His tenor has an ease of production that is startling.  He sang the challenging tessitura like it was the easiest thing in the world and his diction was impeccable.  He also had real chemistry with Ruiten.  Christoph Pohl’s firm baritone and highly physical incarnation of the twin roles of Agamemnon and Thoas were utterly convincing, the multiplicity of feelings that he brought out through the voice was marvellous.

© Armin Bardel
Christoph Pohl, Lenneke Ruiten, Véronique Gens (© Armin Bardel)

In many ways, this was a highly homoerotic staging.  There was much shirt-removing for the gentlemen and certainly the relationship between Oreste and Pylade pointed to something much deeper than friendship.  Stéphane Degout’s Oreste was superb.  His muscular baritone, full and rich, combined with that innate ability to combine music and text really gave us something very special.  He was captivating to watch, fully encapsulating all the facets of his character.  His entire assumption of the role was sung with the perfect combination of vocal strength, complete ease throughout the range and an ideal alchemy of words and music.  Similarly, Rainer Trost gave us a Pylade of great tenderness and resolve.  He sang ‘unis dès la plus tendre enfance’ with great affection and an easy line, the voice at all times free and even.  His aria of resolve to save Oreste, ‘divinité des grandes âmes’, was again dispatched with ease and a fine way of combining the tone with the meaning of the text.

© Armin Bardel
Stéphane Degout, Rainer Trost, Andreas Jankowitsch (© Armin Bardel)

Leo Hussain’s conducting was likewise completely gripping.  He had the measure of both works and the way Aulide lead into the opening of Tauride with the excellent Wiener Symphoniker playing up a storm in perfect symmetry with the stage pictures was simply unforgettable.  Tempi were well chosen and the lean body of strings played with minimal vibrato and elegance.  Apart from a couple of brief episodes of shaky brass tuning, this was superb orchestral playing.  The Arnold Schoenberg Chor sang with youthful tone, fine blend and great amplitude.  What a pleasure to hear an opera chorus with such a well-balanced sound.

© Armin Bardel
Michelle Breedt, Arnold Schoenberg Chor (© Armin Bardel)

This was one of those evenings in the theatre that will remain in the memory for a very long time.  It was a perfect combination of all of the elements that make opera what it is – outstandingly sung in a highly intelligent and visually stimulating staging that challenged and gripped in equal measure, anchored by a towering performance of the title role.  In many ways, given the tragedy of the story, one desperately wished for a happy ending but that alas was impossible.  During the triumphalism of the final chorus the image that remains in the mind is of Iphigénie, Pylade and Oreste at the front of the stage unable to get over the horror of their experiences.  I would encourage anyone who can to see it.

© Armin Bardel
Rainer Trost, Lenneke Ruiten, Stéphane Degout, Véronique Gens, Christoph Pohl, Arnold Schoenberg Chor (© Armin Bardel)

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