Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2013 – Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie [Ed Lyon, Christiane Karg, Sarah Connolly, Stéphane Degout; directed by Jonathan Kent; conducted by William Christie]

Hippolyte et Aricie – Opera in five acts to a libretto by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin after Jean Racine’s Phèdre [performed in the 1733 edition realised by William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and Glyndebourne; sung in French with English surtitles]

Hippolytus – Ed Lyon
Aricia – Christiane Karg
Phaedra – Sarah Connolly
Theseus – Stéphane Degout
Diana – Katherine Watson
Pluto /Jupiter /Neptune – François Lis
Œnone – Julie Pasturaud
Mercury – Samuel Boden
Arcas / Second Fate – Aimery Lefèvre
Tisiphone – Loïc Felix
Cupid / A female sailor – Ana Quintans
High Priestess / Huntress – Emmanuelle de Negri
Follower of Cupid / First Fate – Mathias Vidal
Third Fate – Callum Thorpe
Priestess – Charlotte Beament
Hunter – Timothy Dickinson

The Glyndebourne Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie

Jonathan Kent – Director
Paul Brown – Designer
Mark Henderson – Lighting Designer
Ashley Page – Choreographer
Nina Dunn – Video Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 June, 2013
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex, England

Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne Festival 2013. Photograph: Bill CooperIn this, the first-ever production of a Rameau opera at Glyndebourne, Hippolyte et Aricie, Jonathan Kent may have produced something as original and startling in its own way as was Rameau’s original conception for what was his first opera. Kent’s vision is unlikely to shock or stir controversy (not, to be fair, that it is seeking to do so) but in its conscious marriage of a Baroque dramatic sensibility with 21st-century reality, it makes of Rameau’s 1733 work a free adaptation within an overall framework of colour and spectacle.

The Baroque conventions include the deities appearing high up, usually suspended from the ceiling – all, except Neptune, who emerges from below, and Pluto lurks, earthbound, in the midst of the Underworld; the colourful costumes, usually in 18th-century fashion, are used to distinguish the characters – Diana as the goddess of chastity and fidelity in an icy white dress with silver brocade, Cupid with a fiery-feathery outfit to denote unrestrained passion, Hippolytus, Aricia and (curiously perhaps) Theseus in pure white suits, Phaedra in black, and it is possible too that Pluto’s demeanour was meant to have a passing resemblance to that of the Marquis de Sade; and finally a fair amount of dancing.

Ed Lyon as Hippolytus (Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne Festival 2013). Photograph: Bill CooperThe 21st-century setting was evident in numerous mise-en-scène. The Prologue, setting up the metaphysical contest between Diana’s and Cupid’s competing manifestos of love, is placed within a huge fridge symbolising the cold environment of controlled romantic feeling. In Act Three we find an ordinary domestic setting where Phaedra awaits Theseus’s return from the Underworld, and Hippolytus loiters in another room above, like a love-sick teenager pining for Aricia presumably; the wallpaper and rounded corners of the rooms look like the 1970s. With the happy ending welded on to the end of Racine’s original drama, bringing the reconciliation of Hippolytus and Aricia and the triumph of Diana, the production is brought full-circle to the cold, passionless beginning by placing the action in a morgue in which the two lovers discover themselves in a new life with each other.

Kent explains that he is unconvinced by the so-called happy ending by finding that the banishment of Cupid’s sway results in a passionless, attenuated existence. He acknowledges that a life lived with unrestrained passion is disastrous, but the deliberately low-key settings of the worldly part of the action is at odds with the production’s Baroque scheme which is otherwise used without irony and meaningfully. Kent is not wrong to criticise emotional austerity, and Cupid’s emerging from an egg in the opening scene suggests a natural need for breaking free of restraint. But the items of food, the hint of sexual reproduction in that first appearance of Cupid, and the final scene in the morgue make for rather blunt realisations of some of the basic facts of ordinary biological existence. And, anyway, Diana’s triumph by no means precludes any feeling or emotion in such a relationship as that which Hippolytus and Aricia are allowed to forge at last. (Had they been allowed to embrace, that would have been evident.) All the work’s theme implies is that a balance is to be struck between carnal abandon and a romantic, empathetic void. With the smearing of deer’s blood – and therefore their prior capture and killing – in Act Two as part of the sacrifice to Diana, Kent may well be right to suggest the passion that has to be suppressed, or the violence in which it otherwise finds an outlet, in order to follow Diana’s ordinance of moderate, virtuous love, but that is perhaps the price to be paid as the condition for civilised society – the sort of message which such operas of the French Baroque want to impress upon their audience.

Sarah Connolly as Phaedra & Ed Lyon as Hippolytus (Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne Festival 2013). Photograph: Bill CooperIn other ways Kent correctly respects the conceits of the Baroque/pagan opera which generally appear strange or absurd to us now, for instance the cosmic hierarchy of Underworld, Earth and Sky, with their respective ranks of deities and humans. As Hippolytus and Aricia make their vows of love and constancy to each other in Act Four, they are suddenly attended by a crowd of Diana’s followers, seemingly in the red livery of 18th-century servants. The Glyndebourne audience thought this amusing, but it is consistent with the pagan idea – and incidentally of the Catholic theology to which most of Rameau’s original spectators would have subscribed – of a celestial company of beings in whose witness such solemn promises as those of Hippolytus and Aricia’s would have been sworn. Similarly, as Theseus writhes around in remorseful agony in Act Five thinking that his desire for fatal revenge upon Hippolytus has worked, Theseus’s father Neptune appears behind him to reveal that Hippolytus is still alive, apparently supporting Theseus in the way that God the Father is often seen supporting the figure of the Crucified Son in depictions of the Trinity. Only the concept of the Son is dilated in the opera, however, since the beneficiary of Theseus’s expiation of his crime is not himself, but his son, Hippolytus, who rises to new life in the morgue; Theseus’s punishment is never to be allowed to see his son again.

Musically, William Christie’s direction of Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought a fully aural dimension to the colour and magic in the staging. The music for Diana was marked by serenity and sheen – at times the lustrous strings supporting Diana’s singing might have recalled the halo of sound that accompanies the words of Christus in J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The music connected with Cupid and the Underworld featured far more drama and violence, and accompanying some of the final dances, this must surely have been the first occasion that a musette (a member of the bagpipe family) was heard at Glyndebourne. Particular mention should be made of the flautists who sustain so much of the refined edge to the sound that makes it so Gallic in effect, seeing as flutes were used more sparingly by other composers at the time.

Ed Lyon and Christiane Karg made a well-matched pair as Hippolytus and Aricia. Lyon sang with a noble ease and flexibility – even as he undergoes the distress of Phaedra and Theseus’s machinations – while Karg expressed a touching vulnerability and sympathy even in her despair and frustrations. Sarah Connolly’s portrait of Phaedra was compelling, powerful and nuanced. Although clearly a character to be crossed only at one’s peril, she also showed a more human side by eliciting our sympathy for the amorous feelings she cannot help but feel for her stepson but which she cannot reasonably act upon. Owing to the illness of Stéphanie D’Oustrac, Katherine Watson stood in as Diana. Her vocal lines came across solemnly and seamlessly, and although more contrast and extravagance was not needed, more command in the tone was. Stéphane Degout’s Theseus was a somewhat stoical, suffering figure, but not pathetic (in the negative sense of that term). François Lis took the parts of the three divine sovereigns of the various cosmic realms and carefully distinguished between them in tone and manner (though we only hear the voice of Jupiter and that was slightly nasal).

Minor reservations aside, music and drama come together here very pleasingly – making a strong case for an area of repertory that is growing in popularity again – and whose production values are such that in principle they will yield long-lasting fruit in respect of many other Baroque operas.

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