Krzysztof Warlikowski's 2006 production of Gluck Iphigénie en Tauride remains a provocative and rewarding theatrical experience, but would benefit from a more incisive and precise orchestral performance than that which launched the current revival at the Palais Garnier. Only beginning at the head of the last act ("Je t’implore et je tremble") could one sense a tantalizing glimpse of all of the musical working parts cohering dramatically. Bringing Gluck's 1779 opera to life does not hinge on hiring a historically specialized orchestra, but under Bertrand de Billy's baton the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Paris only managed a muted kind of energy for much of the opening night performance.

Véronique Gens (Iphigénie) © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Véronique Gens (Iphigénie)
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Gluck's unusual musical introduction (first staged at the Paris Opéra with an open curtain, with flashes of lightning gradually illuminating the action) spotlights Iphigénie, who boldly interrupts the instrumental storm. She pleads for the goddess Diane to end the tempest, then reveals her own inner psychological turmoil. As she recounts her disturbing and telling dream about her murderous family, with whom she has long lost contact, Gluck's music is charged so as to convey her troubled emotional state. This is a hallmark of the score, which abounds in moments of reflection, disturbing dreams, and a sense that everything is haunted by the curse that grips Agamemnon's family.

Warlikowski's gambit draws its inspiration from this knot of damned memory. He locates the action in a contemporary retirement home, where we discover Iphigénie as an older, ailing woman regretting events that transpired years ago. Her fellow retirees are a classy lot – a group of elegant, mature actresses – but they pay little heed to her no doubt (in this context) repetitive recollection of her dream, while the chorus of priestesses sings in the pit. At the end of Act II, the ladies pay their respects to Oreste (whom Iphigénie wrongly thinks dead) seated in a row at the front of the stage, eating cake as if attending a reception following a memorial service. Such deliberately flat stage action, which periodically includes unsettling pantomime depictions of Iphigénie's dysfunctional family and her own past experiences, demands convincing execution of her musically grafted troubles, lest we disregard her story in the same fashion as the old dollies onstage.

Thomas Johannes Mayer (Thoas) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Pylade) © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Thomas Johannes Mayer (Thoas) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Pylade)
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

This intense exploration of trauma and its aftereffects extends to Thoas, sung by Thomas Johannes Mayer and presented as an ageing wheelchair-bound war veteran. His flashbacks to his bloodthirsty Scythian soldiers, and their quirky so-called Turkish music popular in Gluck's day, are coordinated with mirrored reflections of the Palais Garnier auditorium and audience, together with projections of their awful text. The reflective drop effectively segments the stage (superb sets and costumes by Małgorzata Szczęśniak) so that Oreste and Pylade appear as real outsiders, closer to the audience, and their appearance marked a significant improvement in the vocal level.

Étienne Dupuis' penetrating, aptly tortured Oreste commandingly steered the action into the present, as Iphigénie's memories began to unfold directly. Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Pylade offered stunning consistency of tone, an impressive variety of colors, and an innate sensitivity, conveying painful tenderness and urgency as needed. Véronique Gens' Iphigénie emerged afresh and more dynamic in this context – richer and more lyrical, as did the chorus – while the actress Renate Jett took up the role of the older raconteur. As the invisible Diane and first priestess, Adriana Gonzalez admirably projected her clear, ringing voice from the back of the orchestra.

Étienne Dupuis (Oreste) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Pylade) © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Étienne Dupuis (Oreste) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Pylade)
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Warlikowski makes the most out of incestuous urges in his reading of Oreste's relationships with Clytemnestre and Iphigénie, as well as Thoas' emotional hold over his head priestess. Iphigénie is thus explicitly haunted not only by her need to choose the victim from the pair of strangers that arrive on the island, but also by her complicity in Thaos' xenophobic enterprise, and above all her attraction to Oreste, which is rendered as sexual just before their filial relationship is made clear (and Oreste's death thereby avoided). All of the silent extra characters are onstage as audience and witness as the taboo of incest is violated.

The final gesture of the elderly ladies ironically mocks Iphigénie – a heroine in her earlier life (in Iphigénie en Aulide) for her willingness to be sacrificed for the sake of her nation's war efforts. After Oreste and Pylade have left Iphigénie alone on stage to sing their last lines together, from the back of the Parkett, the women proudly parade about decorated with medallions. No happy ending for Iphigénie here, but a compelling account of an opera that stands to gain from an equally committed orchestral interpretation.