Festival d’Aix en Provence 2024 Review: ‘Iphigénie en Aulide’ & ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus)

Who’s afraid of double bills? We all love “Cav.” and “Pag.,” and there is some room in everyone’s heart for a “The Human Voice” meets “Bluebeard’s Castle;” nevertheless, Gluck’s Iphigenia operas performed together was a bit of a challenge. The operas, lasting two hours each, are easily stand-alone pieces, and—even though they share a protagonist—they appear to inhabit different realms, dramatically and musically. Revisionist director Dmitri Tcherniakov made them both different sides of the same coin: a reflection about war and sacrifice and, perhaps, an operatic marathon for a few elect spectators.

Entering the house, it was already evident that the five-hour-and-thirty-minute Gluck saga did not convince opera lovers as expected. The galleries of the usually packed Grande Theatre de Provence were almost empty; the orchestra level was far from full—an unwelcome surprise after my experience in the same hall last year. But a waning audience does not necessarily mean anything about the quality of the music.

Known for his drastic readings of opera, Tcherniakov presented an intimate, familial representation that seldom went against the grain of the libretto. Although the characters are “modernized,” only a few moments dispel the sense that we are looking at an uneven production and perhaps an uninspired moment for the director.

The operas were each performed without a break, but with a long interval between them, so the audience could go out and dine—some came back. “Aulide” was staged in a house full of semi-transparent walls where we witness the familiar drama of Iphigénie as a domestic one. Tcherniakov’s scenarios in this part are claustrophobic: both visually and musically. The translucent fabric and heavy metal frames emphasize the illusion of invasion of the house; unfortunately, they also chopped off much of the singers’ voices, muffling even some of the most resonant ones. It is up for debate, perhaps, whether the effect was intentional.

Iphigénie, here, is in an impossible familial arrangement, with all the other characters bent on seeing her death—metaphorical or otherwise. While Agamenon would seem to be the most interested in her death, needing her sacrifice to appease the gods, presented here as perhaps conflicted decision of an ambitious politician. Tcherniakov also equates the investment of Clytemnestra and Achilles investment in the young woman’s marriage that hero with the act of death itself. When in the second act, Iphigénie demands her father’s presence at her wedding, it seems perhaps more logical. When faced with a narcissistic mother and a pathologically pathetic fiancé, it is better to trust in the father who merely wants to kill you. Certainly, the most striking scenic moment of the opera is its ending: it is unclear whether Iphigénie actually survives her immolation. On the one hand, she appears outside of the claustrophobic house, singing, facing the family that wanted to see her dead; on the other, there is a dead body lying on the table in the living room, Iphigénie’s double. They all, gleefully, take photos of and with the cadaver: she is a bridge, after all.

The second opera, “Tauride,” is staged in the ruins of the same house. The muffing fabrics are gone, replaced by light columns that compellingly guide the audience’s gaze. The drama unfolds as a sorrowful appreciation of the aftermath of the war. In fact, the darkness floods the stage with a sense that we are within a phantasmagoria. While the presence of Oreste and Pylade feels extremely real, filled with abrasive physical interactions between the two men, Iphigenia is extremely aged and spectral: perhaps she has not survived her own sacrifice in the first opera.

Beyond discussions of who was and who was not alive in the opera—an endless conversation that can perhaps come to no definitive conclusion—, the spectral element in “Tauride” works well as a reminder of how war transforms the characters into shades of themselves. The trauma and skepticism become palpable. In the end, when Oreste invites Iphigénie to join him as a queen, her answer is left blank. She sits herself at the table and drinks with the victims of the conflict, having become a hopeless spinster.

Production & Musical Highlights

Is it worth it to see the two operas together in one night? Perhaps not. Dramaturgically, “Aulide” serves solely to lift “Tauride” higher. The latter is a masterpiece; the former—in this staging—becomes a congenial prelude at best. Also, there is something to be asked: was it a staging of a romantic epic, the public might have been more eager to show up. There is something uninspiring about the idea of “another Tcherniakov deconstruction,” even with a repertoire as exciting as “Iphigénie en Tauride.”

The night, nevertheless, had very striking moments. First and foremost, Emmanuelle Haïm and her ensemble “Le Concert d’Astrée” are excellent. Opera-conducting is a particular technical skill that few have mastered like Haïm: completely attentive to voices and the staging, Tcherniakov’s staging mostly works because of her attentive and dramatic direction.

The night’s prima donna, Corinne Winters, received a warm reception from the audience. Truth be told, singing two roles of different vocal demands in one night is something few people can do. Her vocal endurance is laudable. Her scenic commitment was also impressive—especially in “Tauride.” The audience seemed to commend her stamina and artistic commitment. Nevertheless, her performance was good, but still not sublime. Her solid voice, with its lyrical tone, combined well with the orchestra at some moments. All the beautiful arias were there, beautifully sung—some moments in “Malheurese Iphigénie” were particularly remarkable—but, amid such great cast mates, perhaps Winters was a bit outshone. Do not get me wrong, Winters has a beautiful instrument, but there is something about her phrasing that sounded a bit too safe—perhaps a form of preserving herself for the long night.

Illuminating Cast

In Florian Sempey, we find a compelling and psychologically damaged Oreste. With a powerful voice, Sempey’s singing struck everyone with its capacity to give a glimpse of childness, as if his inner-child were forever wounded. In “Le calme rentre dans mon coeur!,” when tormented by the Furies, his tone became blank and infantilized, reflecting the terribleness of his fate.

Even more vocally charismatic was Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s Plyade. The tenor never sounded better. His baritone-like voice blended well with Sempey, making their male friendship more fraternal than homoerotic. His aria, “Unis dès la plus tendre enfance” was sung without any hint of formalism—extremely fluid and conciliatory.

Alexandre Duhamel sang an agonizing Thoas. His voice did not hide the fear of the character. In his aria, Duhamel’s voice was ripped, asper, reflecting the character’s terrible angst.

Transitioning between “Aulide” and “Tauride,”  Véronique Gens was, as Clytemnestra, perhaps the best actress on the stage. Characterized as something between Katherine Hepburn in “Suddenly Last Summer” and Caterina Creel in “Cuna de Lobos,” Gens never lost her composure and scenic gravitas. Clytemnestra is a character only in “Aulide”; her appearances in  “Tauride” were spectral, but still absurdly remarkable. Vocally speaking, Gens continues to reign. Her attention to language is extreme; few opera singers have such a crystal-clear approach to language—no subtitles needed. Her final aria in “Aulide” was as dramatically charged as one can imagine.

Russell Braun manages to sing a perhaps more congenial Agamenon than expected. Significantly less narcissistic than his wife and son-in-law-to-be, his first appearance holds to an imagined psychological complexity that is different than the other characters in the opera. There were some problems with the vocal projection, especially in a scenario very unfriendly to the singers, that might have cost him, especially in terms of subtleties of dynamics.

Alasdair Kent makes Achilles as obnoxious as possible. The character is self-involved, glory-seeking, eager for people’s attention, and as is always the case with such figures, not as charming as he thinks he is. Kent seems to be a specialist in portraying these shallow vain men—a talent for self-irony that is perhaps rare in a tenor. Nevertheless, his light voice, with easy high notes, sounds delicate, even sometimes fragile, in the face of a character that is a warrior.

Soula Parassidis sings a saddened Diana, with much sobriety.

Concluding Thoughts

After seeing the operas, I am still uncertain whether performing the two Iphigénies back-to-back is a worthy artistic exercise. To me, the presence of “Aulide” only strengthened the musical qualities of “Tauride,” but I cannot say I enjoyed the former any better than before. Nevertheless, in this wicked maze of missed connections, the juxtaposing of the two Iphigénies enabled a discussion, not so much about the war per se, but about the myth. How flexible can myths be in telling any story that we want them to? How flexible is Gluck’s theater?


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