A fascinating phenomenon within the performing arts is its natural tendency for constant reinvention. While history illuminates our propensity to immortalize art and artists in marble effigies unchanged by time, these monuments are more clay than stone, newly shaped by the fresh hands that touch them. As a music historian, this act of ‘New Beginnings’ in art is something I have come to value quite highly, perhaps because it is a reminder that humanity still finds relevance in looking to the past in forging ahead to the future.
Recently, however, I was hit with an ethical dilemma as to when ‘New Beginnings’ simply become the beginning of something entirely new. During a recent holiday in Paris, my husband and I attended a production of Iphigénie en Tauride by the Opéra National de Paris. The work is an eighteenth-century French opera by the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, centered around the final saga of the family of Agamemnon following the Trojan War. In many ways, the opera, in its eighteenth-century context, was a reinvention in and of itself: the libretto was based on the Greek tragedy by Euripides, and the music, staging, and ballet elements of the work aimed to create a reform in opera – reforms that afforded less priority to spectacle and more to dramatic action. Since then, the opera has been revived many times and in many contexts: a German version by Gluck in 1781, an Italian adaptation in 1783, a German arrangement by Richard Strauss in 1889, and a revival in Paris in 1931, just to name a few.
The production I attended was a revival of director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging from 2007. Calling his interpretation ‘modern’ is an understatement. To draw a recent parallel, Warlikowski works in much the same vein as American theatre director Peter Sellars, whose 1996 staging of György Ligeti’s opera Le grand macabre was presented by the London Symphony Orchestra last month. These interpretations are within the milieu of the Regieoper (director’s opera); general characteristics include a displaced setting, modernized narrative, and an element of shock value, typically sexual. In Warlikowski’s production, the Greek tragedy is relocated to a retirement home; the priestesses are elderly actresses whose mannerisms and dress are a comic pastiche of the glitz and glamour of their glory days. A war veteran – for reasons unexplained, confined to an electric wheelchair – dominates Iphigénie and her company, until he is later murdered offstage in one of the theatre’s boxes – for reasons unexplained. Warlikowski also extensively explores incest between Iphigénie and her long-lost brother Oreste, even though it is a dynamic unexpressed by the libretto.
General concepts of age, exile, and femininity are ones that are relevant to contemporary audiences. However, at times, Warlikowski’s choices regarding staging and set design can be confusing and in contradiction with one another. The use of projected text and video, nude pantomime, implied fractured temporality in the staging, and multiple varied anachronisms often fail to interact with the original narrative in an interesting or productive way. In the end, I left the production feeling that Gluck’s opera was lost – or, at least, served no real purpose – in Warlikowski’s vision. Reading what were largely positive reviews of the performance, the only critique was towards the orchestra’s alleged inability to fully grasp the director’s intent; I found this ironic because the musicianship was of the highest quality, accurately attentive to the aesthetic demands of eighteenth-century music. The critics’ ire might better be leveled towards the disconnect itself: these are two aesthetic climates – Warlikowski’s complex staging and Gluck’s subdued music – that cannot be reconciled.
As a final note, while reviewing the programme in preparation for this submission, my attention was drawn to the cover. The omission of Warlikowski’s name, and the inclusion of Gluck’s is oddly unsettling: was Gluck ever there to begin with?
Nicholas Rheubottom is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Music at King’s College London, his research explores eighteenth-century literary works of the early Celtic revival as a platform for understanding shifts in musical aesthetics.