Clearly, Gluck is not a composer who draws a crowd, and it's such a pity. At the end of this operatic season in Paris, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was far from sold out for its new production, Iphigénie en Tauride. But why? On paper, this composer's operas have everything to appeal to all kinds of opera fans: the Baroque music lover will find powerfully expressed emotions, cleverly utilised mythology and a nice dea ex machina; the spectator who is not keen on wild romanticism could appreciate instead the continuous dramatic tension, the vocalism that is more touching than showoffish and the power of the orchestral score – which impressed and inspired a certain Hector Berlioz.

<i>Iphigénie en Tauride</i> at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées © Vincent Pontet
Iphigénie en Tauride at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
© Vincent Pontet

There is something in it also for theatre enthusiasts, especially when it comes to the staging by Robert Carsen. After a beautiful Orfeo ed Euridice a year ago, there can't be any doubt: when the Canadian director meets Gluck in Avenue Montaigne, a mysterious chemical reaction ensues. The Carsen ingredients are well known – timeless black costumes, lights at stage level, stripped down sets: they suited Orfeo perfectly and convince even more in Iphigénie. There is no need for context in this work that boils down to a family tragedy full of traumatised characters. The whole plot takes place in a black cube with geometrically-divided faces, on which elusive Furies write in chalk the names of the murdered parents. Here we are inside the head of Iphigénie, the sacrificed daughter of Agamemnon, who owes her life only to the intervention of the goddess Diana. Or in the nightmares of her brother, Oreste, who murdered their mother Clytemnestre to avenge the death of their father. As each memory reemerges, water surges on stage, washing the characters' conscience... or drowning their minds in disturbing dark shadows. When, at last, the heroes manage to confront their inner demons and reveal themselves to each other, the walls of the cube rise, revealing the entrance to an immaculate world. The setting is extremely simple but the effect is dizzying.

Gaëlle Arquez (Iphigénie) © Vincent Pontet
Gaëlle Arquez (Iphigénie)
© Vincent Pontet

The almost bare setting perfectly represents the inner drama that is unraveling thanks to the contribution of the dancers, performing a powerful choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. Bodies stretch out like dead branches in the genealogical tree of the Atreides, they can be ghostly demons attacking Oreste, or can transform into the dark thoughts of the Priestess Iphigénie before the sacrifice: the dancing informs the text and the subtext, wonderfully enhanced by the changing lights. Strikingly, all the storms in the orchestra become psychologically tangible. And the startling choreography of the swords was performed with millimetric precision, which is even more impressive to see on a first night.

As a direct consequence of the importance given to the dance, the choir has been relegated to the pit. That did not disappoint, however – quite the contrary. The balance was never unnatural and the Balthasar Neumann Choir was impressive with its rhythmic sharpness, clarity of diction and general accuracy. The continuous dancing could have also proved to be a distraction for the singers... But Carsen dedicated particular care to the acting direction, that was beautifully put together by the singers, who offered performances of great dramatic accuracy.

Stéphane Degout (Oreste) © Vincent Pontet
Stéphane Degout (Oreste)
© Vincent Pontet

And on this topic, the two main characters are particularly deserving of praise. Especially since, vocally, their exposition was breathtaking: Stéphane Degout (Oreste) and Gaëlle Arquez (Iphigénie) have voices that naturally complement each other, carried with natural power, sensitivity of phrasing and impressive breath control. Adding to this a pronunciation that was always clear and expressive, Degout distinguished himself in his Act 2 aria (“Le calme rentre dans mon cœur”). Arquez sang the wide intervals flexibly and made her passionate tone shine, embellished by a quivering vibrato (“Ô malheureuse Iphigénie”).

With such interpreters, it is hard for the supporting roles not to be overshadowed. Paolo Fanale made a fair counterpart for Oreste in the role of Pylade, but his intense tenor failed to hide an often approximate French. As for Alexandre Duhamel, he presented a Thoas full of character, but while trying to be as intense as the other characters, pushed his disjointed tone too far. Worthy of note, however, was the beautiful final piece by Catherine Trottmann (Diane), in top form and beaming from the first balcony.

<i>Iphigénie en Tauride</i> at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées © Vincent Pontet
Iphigénie en Tauride at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
© Vincent Pontet

Finally, we must applaud the work of Thomas Hengelbrock at the helm of his Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, an orchestra that play on period instruments, boasting a foundation of solid strings and particularly accurate woodwinds (the solo flute was dazzling). The Maestro led this rarely performed score with constantly renewed inspiration, choosing sharp contrasts and taking the risk of living the silences until their very end. When the intensity of the silence met the darkness of the setting, the whole Théâtre des Champs-Élysées shivered. Now we just need to fill the seats.


This review was translated from French by Laura Volpi.

*****