Reflections on Memory: Iphigénie en Tauride at the Opéra national de Paris

Gluck – Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie – Véronique Gens
Oreste – Étienne Dupuis
Pylade – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Thoas – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Première prêtresse – Adriana González
Deuxième prêtresse – Emanuela Pascu
Diane – Adriana González
Un Scythe – Tomasz Kurniega
Le Ministre – Tomasz Kurniega
Une femme grecque – Emanuela Pascu

Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Bertrand de Billy
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski.

Opéra national de Paris – Palais Garnier, Paris, France.  Thursday, December 15th, 2016.

Over the past few years the Opéra national de Paris has had many serious labour issues that have resulted in a significant number of cancellations of shows.  The net result is that it has become hard to book with confidence and make travel and hotel reservations when there is a significant possibility that the show will not go ahead.  Fortunately, things have settled down somewhat recently – at least for the time being.  The Opéra is also not the most spectator-friendly venue – the coat check was closed (in the middle of winter when audiences have large coats and other cold-weather accoutrements), latecomers were admitted during the show, and there was a lot of noise emanating from the lobby just before the interval.  And yet when Véronqiue Gens’ Iphigénie sang ‘ô toi qui prolongeas mes jours’ nothing else mattered.  One was instantly captivated by her long lines, instinctive phrasing and her way of making us believe that she is the only person in the world who can sing this music.

Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Tonight’s Iphigénie en Tauride staging was the work of Krzysztof Warlikowski.  His starting point was to set the work in a retirement home.  A mirror at the back of the set meant that we could see our reflection as an audience in the events on stage and it meant that we were never quite sure whether what we saw was real or a simulacrum.  This was achieved in part by Iphigénie transforming from a grand, elegant, mature lady into a younger version of herself while her older double looked on.  When Pylade and Oreste were brought on as prisoners we saw them as their actual, younger selves.  I found this a very moving idea – the thought that our memories are of now and of then, and the way that Warlikowski allowed Iphigénie to transcend time was intelligent and well executed.  As Iphigénie sang ‘que les regrets de ta sœur jusqu’à toi puissent descendre’, we saw her younger self sitting with the other seniors all of them perhaps reflecting on what was or what could have been.

Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP

There were some other interesting stage pictures where we saw Oreste tormented by the Eumenides, haunted by his killing of Clytemnestre with the murder acted out right in front of us by doubles.  As Iphigénie and Oreste made their rapprochement the starkness and emptiness of the stage meant that one’s attention was brought fully to the fact that this really is a story about two people rediscovering themselves and trying to reconcile what has happened.  Likewise, in the closing moments, we see Iphigénie alone, desperately trying to grab on to what was left of the past – her isolation on stage starkly contrasting with the triumphalism of the closing chorus.

Étienne Dupuis & Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Étienne Dupuis & Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP

This striking, and admittedly moving, stage picture did however come at a cost and that was the balance with the chorus which was relegated to the pit.  This is where Warlikowski’s staging was less successful.  The chorus was barely audible which led to serious balance issues and it meant that those wonderful choruses were deprived of all of their impact – the chorus is as much of a protagonist in this piece as the principals.  This wasn’t particularly helped by Bertrand de Billy’s laboured and workmanlike conducting.  It felt that he only really ever scratched the surface of the work.  The opening storm felt like a drizzly summer afternoon with attack flaccid and tempi that were far too stately.  This consequently meant that last quarter-hour sagged despite the gripping vocal performances.  The lack of forward momentum was noticeable and I longed for him to get the strings to dig deep and bring out much more rhythmic impetus.

Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP

It’s hard to imagine a better Iphigénie than Gens gave us tonight.  After her stunning account of the role in Torsten Fischer’s staging in Vienna in 2014 I had high hopes for tonight and they were most certainly realized.  Her tone is instantly recognizable – warm and rich yet always elegant.  Her stylistic awareness, with occasional and subtle use of ornamentation meant that it really felt that this familiar work was being created for us, right there and then.  Her ‘malheureuse Iphigénie’ had just the tinge of regret and loneliness that it needed yet she felt in total command of the line, crossing registers with ease.

Étienne Dupuis & Stanislas de Barbeyrac © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Étienne Dupuis & Stanislas de Barbeyrac © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Étienne Dupuis is another of those splendid singers that we produce so many of in la belle province.  His is a handsome baritone with a masculine and virile sound.  Oreste is a role that sits high but Dupuis sounded completely untroubled by the tessitura with the voice absolutely even from top to bottom.  His ‘dieux qui me poursuivez’ was dispatched with real strength and he found genuine tenderness for his reunion with his sister in the last act.  Stanislas de Barbeyrac gave us a charmingly sung Pylade with some attractive honeyed tone on top and an elegant line.  He added some nicely sensitive embellishments to his beautiful number ‘unis dès la plus tendre enfance’ that really enhanced the line.  The remainder of the cast reflected the quality that one would expect for a house of this standing although I found Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Thoas tight and rubbery.

The set of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Opéra national de Paris © Guergana Damianova / OnP
The set of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Opéra national de Paris © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Tonight genuinely lived because of the excellent diction of this very fine cast.  Indeed, I think it would be hard to imagine the 3 main roles better sung that they were this evening, led by an Iphigénie who surely is one of the greatest interpreters of the part.  Sadly the performance was let down by superficial conducting that lacked drama and by a chorus that was rendered inaudible, although the orchestra was serviceable enough.  Above all, I found it a thoughtful and engaging piece of theatre, one that reflected on who we are, how we look at the past and live in the present.  Yes, it did have issues but the cumulative effect meant that it had impact and was in fact, deeply moving.

Étienne Dupuis & Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP
Étienne Dupuis & Véronique Gens © Guergana Damianova / OnP

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