When I told a friend who lives in Paris that I was going to see Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris at the Opéra, he asked me right away if I knew that this was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. He did not know that I had seen his Un Tramway… with Isabelle Huppert in 2008 (?) and survived to be surprised by his fascinating Frau ohne Schatten in Munich a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, though, this Iphigénie, as far as I understand, was his first take on directing opera. And one can see that.
Dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck makes, in his text in the booklet, valid and insightful points in traumatic events in the context of family and war and also about family ties in times of war and how one survives and eventually finds healing. However, what one sees on stage is too contrived for one to make all that out. What is truly clear is that there is a woman in a retirement home reminiscing about sad events in her family, probably the consequences of the incestuous relationship between her mother and her brother (the part about Orestes and Pylades I’ll leave out, because this is hard to overlook in the text as it is…). The whole affair of Iphigenia’s duties as a priestress makes very little sense in the context: the moment a knife appears in her hand seems completely nonsensical for someone who had never seen this opera before. To make things worse, Warlikowski is not fond of choristers and one listens to their singing (and also every small role) off stage, what makes the last scene (when the Greek priestresses and the scythians fight over Orestes) impossible to follow (musically too). In any case, the director’s worst offense in an opera that can be low in dramatic tension was letting it be very low in dramatic tension. One just needs to check Youtube to see the excerpts from the performances at the Theater an der Wien and in Salzburg to see the difference.
Although the Palais Garnier had seen period instrument groups in its pit, this Iphigénie has the house orchestra under all-purpose conductor Bertrand de Billy. His approach was almost invariably valid in terms of tempo and accent, but the orchestra often sounded colorless, undistinguished and unclear. And the off-stage chorus is a something no serious conductor should accept.
Véronique Gens’s soprano is tailor-made for the role of Iphigénie, and she sings it with unfailing sense of style, clarity of diction and dramatic engagement – even if her high notes took a while to find the ideal focus. I had read a great deal about Stanislas de Barbeyrac and was curious to hear him live. It is indeed an interesting voice – rather big for a Mozart tenor, but curiously baritonal in color. One can understand why reviewers tend to imagine him in heavier roles, but he still has to figure out his high register, which sounds a bit tight and grainy. His ease with mezza voce, however, is praiseworthy, as well as his phrasing, musicainly and expressive all the way. Replacing Stéphane Degout, Etienne Dupuis offered an ideal performance as Orest both in terms of voice and interpretation. Bravo. I’ve read that Thomas Johannes Mayer would sing the role of Thoas with some surprise. Although his bass-baritone is not truly smooth, his singing did not make violence to classical style and the rough edges made sense for the role of the bloodthirsty king. Curiously, he sounded a bit out of sorts in the last act.