Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

June 08, 2008

Mireille Delunsch as Iphigénie and Stéphane Degout as Oreste
Photo : F. Ferville/Opéra national de Paris 2008

One of the highlights of my last visit to the Palais Garnier and the Paris National Opera in 2006 was a spectacular revival of Rameau’s Platée starring among others Mireille Delunsch and Yann Beuron in an inspired Laurent Pelly production. So my hopes were high at the beginning of this trip in that both Delunsch and Beuron would again grace the Garnier stage this time in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Alas, magic was not to strike twice, even if this final performance of the run had its charms.

Probably the biggest obstacles were director Krzystof Warlikowski’s staging and Ivor Bolton’s conducting. This is the infamous “nursing-home” Iphigénie that Susan Graham, who stared in the original run of this production in 2006, openly dissed by name several month’s back in Opera News. Iphigénie appears as an elderly woman in a nursing home who is recalling events of dreams she is having which may or may not be her own memories. While Mireille Delunsch does all the singing and acting, there is always a doppelganger on stage , in this case Renate Jett, who takes whichever role is non-singing for that part of the staging. Things are generally modern dress with the elderly Iphigénie wearing a gold, sequined skirt and jacket in contrast to her more dowdy fellow home residents. It’s a good look, and being from L.A. I can tell you that sometimes that’s all you need.

But I can see why Graham took issue with this staging, in that despite a strong and pleasing aesthetic, the show is burdened with so many competing ideas at once, that they often seem to be battling it out on stage. There is the whole old-lady-nursing home stuff, but it often takes a back seat to things like a naked Oreste killing his mother after she exposes her naked breast to him, a small group of dancers clad only in white boxer shorts, and a tattooed wheel-chair-bound Thoas who suddenly can walk and throws flowers at the stage from a side box while in uniform in Act II. There’s a good idea in there somewhere, but all at once makes it not just difficult to follow, but ponderous.

Musically, I thought Bolton was the weakest link. The score sounded slower and heavier than it should to my ear. Vocally, however, things were quite good. This is despite the fact that the performance started with one of those she’s-sick-but-she’s-going-on-anyway announcements about Delunsch who performed the lead role. You’d hardly notice, though, as good as she sounded, only getting froggy momentarily in a couple spots. Beuron’s Pylade and Stéphane Degout’s Oreste both got the job done, even when they often had little to do.

So, overall it was good, though not great. I will say, however, that I appreciate this approach even if it didn’t completely work for me. I’d rather see a hundred of these overreaching productions than to sit through one more ersatz American fantasy of a bygone and non-existent Europe that populates so many American stages today.

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I believe Susan Graham also mentioned this production during the panel discussion for Iphigénie en Tauride in San Francisco, but she took even greater issue with the Zurich production with big heads in it.
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