Trapped by Destiny: Iphigénie en Tauride at the Opéra de Rouen Normandie

Gluck – Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie – Hélène Carpentier
Oreste – Jérôme Boutillier
Pylade – Ben Bliss
Thoas – Pierre-Yves Pruvot
Diane / 2nde prêtresse – Iryna Kyshliaruk
1ère prêtresse / femme grecque – Sophie Boyer

Chœur accentus – Opéra de Rouen Normandie, Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie / Christophe Rousset.
Stage director – Robert Carsen.

Opéra de Rouen Normandie, Rouen, France.  Sunday, February 27th, 2022.

Today marked my first visit to the Opéra de Rouen.  Located within an eighty-minute travelling distance of Paris, France, the house offers an attractive addition to the considerable cultural riches of the capital of the French Republic.  The welcome is cordial and the seats extremely comfortable.  The house also offers some interesting casting, frequently giving opportunities to young talents to make prises de rôle.  The original attraction of today’s matinee was the opportunity to see the great Véronique Gens in one of her signature roles.  Unfortunately, Gens was required to withdraw for personal reasons only a few days ago.  Consequently, the house then offered the title role to promising newcomer Hélène Carpentier, who learned the role and the staging in only two days. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno / Albatros

Robert Carsen’s staging is a known quantity.  Indeed, I saw it around a decade ago in Toronto with Susan Graham in the title role.  It was revived here by Christophe Gayral.  Carsen sets the action in a black box, upon which a corps of dancers paint the names of Iphigénie, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestre.  While the chorus sang from the side of the stage, the dancers constantly interact with the principals, creating constantly-changing stage pictures and reflecting both the pursuit of Oreste by the furies, and also reinforcing the sense of the central trio of Iphigénie, Oreste and Pylade fulfilling a pre-defined destiny.  The lighting (Carsen himself with Peter van Praet), also made intriguing use of shadow, particularly at the moment where Iphigénie held up her sword at the front of the stage, while its shadow pointed at Oreste’s head. 

This Iphigénie en Tauride is a sister to Carsen’s Elektra, which I saw in Paris and has also been seen in a number of other houses, in that he also makes use here of the same black shift for the title role and her shadowing dancers.  Where the staging feels underdeveloped is in its treatment of the relationship between Oreste and Pylade, here made to feel almost cold and free of any chemistry, the exploration of the homoerotic subtext not even attempted.  That said, Carsen does give us a fluent, and indeed extremely technically impressive, piece of theatre. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno / Albatros

Given the complexities of the production, Carpentier’s complete command both of the role and its physical incarnation was seriously impressive.  The winner of the first prize of the Concours Voix Nouvelles, the 26-year-old soprano already has a burgeoning career in lighter roles such as Zerlina and Marzelline.  Iphigénie is therefore a big assignment for her.  There are signs of a well-schooled technique there, evident in an admirably smooth legato in ‘Ô malheureuse Iphigénie’.  At times, there was a tendency for the tone to spread and pitch to sink as a result of putting a little too much pressure on the tone, betraying perhaps the fact that the role is currently a size too big for her – but I have no doubt that Carpentier will grow into the role with time.  What also distinguished her performance, was the sheer clarity of the text and willingness to use it to truly live her character – astounding when one considers how quickly she prepared the role.  This was an auspicious debit for a singer with much promise.

As Oreste, Jérôme Boutillier brought an exceptionally firm, handsome baritone to his role.  As with Carpentier, he used the words to fully illustrate his character’s predicament, drawing out the constant fear and horror of Oreste’s deeds without ever losing the core of the tone.  Indeed, the voice is absolutely even from top to bottom.  It seems that Boutillier has a Posa in his future plans, and that should be a role that will suit him well.  He was a wonderful ease on top and an easy line – an artist most certainly worth following.  Ben Bliss sang Pylade in a focused, well-placed tenor, and in clear French.  He’s also the owner of a very good technique, which he displayed through a milky smooth legato in ‘Unis dès la plus tendre enfance’, and in the way he negotiated the ascents to the stratosphere with elegance and an impeccable control of dynamics. 

Photo: © Marion Kerno / Albatros

In the remainder of the cast, we had an agreeable pair of ladies, while Pierre-Yves Pruvot was a gruff-sounding Thoas.  The chorus, provided by accentus and prepared by Christophe Grapperon, sang with an attractive blend of tone and wonderfully clear diction.   There were a few passages where the tenors and basses lost contact with the pit slightly, but these were brief.  Christophe Rousset led a reading that was notable for its innate sense of style and elegance of phrasing.  Tempi were generally on the moderate side, with the result that there were a few passing moments where the tension sagged, particularly in the recitatives.  Attack in the strings also tended to be flaccid, lacking the knife-sharp edge it ideally needs.  The house orchestra, playing for the most part on modern instruments but with period brass, had the strings playing senza vibrato throughout, which was most welcome.  Tuning from the strings, indeed from the entire band, was spot on. 

Today’s Iphigénie made for a highly engaging afternoon in the theatre, and a notable introduction to this adventurous house.  We were given musical and dramatic performances that were on a very high level and it had clearly been judiciously cast, introducing us to a central trio of talents that are very much worth following.  Carsen’s staging impressed by its fluency and ability to create striking stage pictures.  The performance was received with a generous ovation by the Rouen audience, with particularly loud cheers for Carpentier. 

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