Glyndebourne Captures Spirit of the Baroque in Rameau’s First Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rameau, Hippolyte et Aricie: Soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, / William Christie (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera Theatre, Sussex, 29.6.2013 (MMB)

Diana: Katherine Watson
Cupid/Sailor Girl: Ana Quintans
Jupiter/Pluto/Neptune: François Lis
Follower of Cupid/First Fate: Mathias Vidal
Aricia: Christiane Karg
Hippolytus (son of Theseus): Ed Lyon
Priestess: Charlotte Beament
High Priestess/Huntress/Song of the Nightingale: Emmanuelle de Negri
Phaedra (wife of Theseus, stepmother of Hippolytus): Sarah Connolly
Arcas (confidant of Theseus)/Second Fate: Aimery Lefèvre
Oenone (confidant of Phaedra): Julie Pasturaud
Theseus: Stéphane Degout
Tisiphone (a Fury): Loïc Félix
Third Fate: Callum Thorpe
Mercury: Samuel Boden
Hunter: Timothy Dickinson

Sophie Allnatt, Thomas Baylis, Nicole Craddock, Anthony Kurt Gabel, Jarkko Lehmus, Martin Lindinger, Naomi Murray, Johanna Nuutinen

Soloist musicians:
Harpsichord continuo: Benoît Hartoin
Cello continuo: Jonathan Manson
Double-bass continuo: Chi-Chi Nwanoku

Director: Jonathan Kent
Designer: Paul Brown
Lightening Designer: Mark Henderson
Choreographer: Ashley Page
Video Designer: Nina Dunn

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was not only an outstanding musical theorist but also France’s leading 18th Century composer. To most people, he may be best known for his keyboard and chamber works, as well as for being the author of the Traité de l’harmonie, which in 1722 made his name and had great musical impact. However, his best compositions are in dramatic music though Rameau came late to opera. Hippolyte et Aricie was his first operatic composition, premiered in Paris in 1733, and although his music covers the best part of six decades, Hippolyte et Aricie was written when he was nearly fifty years old. Interestingly, last night was also the first time that Glyndebourne had staged and performed an opera by Rameau. When I interviewed David Pickard (General Director of Glyndebourne Opera) in March of the current year, I asked him if there was a reason. To which he said there was nothing in particular. I then wanted to know why the choice of Hyppolite et Aricie and not another of Rameau’s pieces. Mr Pickard’s answer was rather interesting: “…while everyone thinks that Glyndebourne is a place for picnics and comedies and jolly entertainment, the thing that most affects people here are invariably the pieces that are the most serious ones…” and “…so, I thought it was important that we go with one of the serious tragedies because I think it has the potential really, really to move and engage audiences in quite a profound way.” Whether Jonathan Kent’s sparkling new production achieved this is, I suppose, a matter for the audience to decide.

The libretto for Hippolyte et Aricie, written by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, is a reworking of the tragic story of Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, and her incestuous love for her stepson Hippolytus who in turn is in love with the young Aricia. Pellegrin based it on one of Jean Racine’s greatest works Phèdre, written in 1677, and also borrowed elements from Greek tragedy, namely Euripides’s Hippolytos who was also a model for Racine. Unlike Racine (and others before him), Pellegrin makes some alterations between the lead characters, mainly Theseus whose part becomes more commanding than that of his queen, Phaedra.

Jonathan Kent’s production of this jewel from the French Baroque opera is possibly a slightly controversial one. As the curtain opens for the Prologue, one is faced with a giant fridge (complete with wrapped sausages, a pack of orange juice, broccoli, eggs and a few other items)! Chaste goddess Diana appears on a top shelf of the fridge, in full Baroque costume and amidst a lot of ice, and begins to sing of her quarrel with Cupid, unruly god of love and passion. Cupid, dressed in garish colours, comes out of one of the eggs in the best fashion of a new born bird, anxious to taste life. Diana’s followers, in pristine modern white fur coats, walk around in front of the fridge while eventually, Cupid’s followers appear through the pack of sausages. There was a murmur of mild disapproval at the scene (from me included) at what people must have anticipated to be yet another weirdly, possibly highly intellectual, modern production that nobody would understand! But, in spite of all its contrasts and mixture of modern appliances with baroque features, the production actually works. To fully grasp it, it is advisable to read Cori Ellison’s interview with director Jonathan Kent, printed on the programme, before the performance starts. In it, Kent explains his approach and what he was trying to achieve in great detail. He states that what they are trying to do is to reinvent Baroque opera for the 21st century (a little too ambitions perhaps?) and that they hope to delight the audience with images that appeal, as well as encompassing the intellectual discourse that lies at the core of the opera, i.e. the debate between the rigour of Diana (Goddess of Chastity, of Hunting and of Fidelity within marriage) and Cupid, the anarchic spirit of unrestrained and uncontrollable passion.

The prologue, described above, sets the tone for the rest of the opera. Kent tries to bring to life elements of the Baroque, which were called at the time les merveilles (the wonders), meaning here not only the elaborate costumes of the gods but also some of the special effects: For example, the gods flying through the air while singing, or descending from the skies (here naturally the ceiling of the auditorium) and hovering above the mortals. He combines these with a variety of modern elements. First, the mortals are all in modern day dress. Second, we have the hunting scene, with the deer being dragged in and bled in full view (naturally, they are not real animals but looked real enough). Personally, I found this scene over the top and tasteless. It could have been done in a more subtle manner but then again the Baroque was anything but! Thirdly, we have modern appliances of which the fridge is the most important. By the way, beware of the back of your fridge! That is the dwelling of Pluto, lord of the Underworld, complete with strange flies, spider webs, demons and furies. A splendid Pluto, wearing a red wig and dressed in a flamboyant bright green coat embroidered with flames, appears on top of the electrical bits at the back of the fridge, commanding his subjects and holding Theseus, who went into Hell, hoping to save his friend Pirithous. This is to my mind the best, most powerful moment of the whole production. Pluto is superbly performed by François Lis (who also sings the smaller parts of Neptune and Jupiter). His sonorous bass lifts easily above the sound of the orchestra and rings across the auditorium, sending shivers down one’s spine. This was definitely one of the outstanding performances of the night. Then, we have the palace of Theseus and Phaedra which is a modern looking house (complete with a rather ugly wall paper in the sitting room!) featuring a large fish tank (without fish) producing a lot of bubbles that increase in intensity when the orchestra performs the rolling seas and the monster that drags and drowns Hippolytus. Finally, the last act is set in a morgue (with the fridge boxes where the bodies are kept). Hippolytus is pulled out one of these boxes and comes back to life under the protection of goddess Diana to be reunited with his beloved Aricia. In the meantime, Phaedra has killed herself and is pulled out of another box so that her soul stands judgement. Kent is very successful in contrasting the cold, rigorous, austere world of Diana (hence the fridge and the mortuary) with the unruly passions of Cupid. He also succeeds at communicating the right message, meaning that life should not be ruled entirely by Diana or Cupid but that a happy, balanced life is a combination of both. Thus the opera although a tragedy has a happy ending (a convention of the time for French Baroque opera), however, it is actually not that happy because Hippolytus and Aricia will live a life devoid of feeling and passion; a point clearly put across by Cupid, with his head covered, hung like a common criminal just before the curtain falls.

Besides the splendid François Lis, whom I mentioned above, the rest of the cast, in fact, is exceptionally good. Stéphane Degout makes for an excellent tortured, torn Theseus and Sarah Connolly as his wife Phaedra very nearly steals the show. Appearing in elegant, stylish dresses, she has a commanding presence and was in fine voice. I have never heard her sing so well, particularly when she delivers Phaedra’s confession of guilt. The young lovers, Hippolyte and Aricie, played by two young, promising singers, Britain’s Ed Lyon and Germany’s Christiane Karg respectively, are two handsome and believable leads. Karg in particular plays a fresh faced, innocent Aricie to perfection, singing the role with great beauty and crystal clear tone. The goddess Diana was ably sung last night by Katherine Watson, replacing Stéphanie D’Oustrac who was taken ill. Ana Quintans made for a colourful, well sung Cupid and Emmanuelle de Negri’s crystalline voice was a pure delight as the High Priestess, the Huntress and especially as the Song of the Nightingale. Great care was taken with the language (as is pivotal for French baroque opera) and all singers, including the non-French ones, pronounced the words with great elegance and clarity, almost as if they were all native speakers.

The dancers displayed solid, stylish performances and the choreography by Ashley Page (in his Glyndebourne debut) is fluid, complementing the music and action very effectively. However, to me and I think the vast majority of the public, the absolute stars of the show were without a doubt the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the fabulous baton of William Christie. Their performances were simply brilliant, impeccably sung and played, magnificently recreating Rameau’s beautifully harmonious score. Deservedly, chorus and orchestra received the greatest ovations of the night.

Jonathan Kent’s production was generally well received and personally, I liked it. I think that he was able to capture the spirit of the Baroque, exactly as he intended. Inevitably, however, for a production of this kind, it did not please everybody. Particularly but not exclusively, some of the French members of the audience (there were several sitting around me) who clearly applauded the cast, chorus and orchestra but booed the production team when they came on stage at the end. Naturally and rightfully so, Rameau is a national treasure in France and some people may have felt that Kent’s production defiled his legacy and tarnished his music. I enjoyed it (and many other people did to) and I believe that Glyndebourne was brave in staging a Rameau opera in this manner. Last night, where again the gods of the good weather smiled upon us, controversially (or not, depending on one’s views) we were again offered an enjoyable summer evening of music in the glorious settings of this rather unique opera house.

Margarida Mota-Bull