When Hippolyte et Aricie was premiered in 1733, it was considered radically inventive. So it's appropriate that Glyndebourne should present Rameau with the same spirit of adventure. William Christie has shown many times before that baroque thrives on daring and panache.
Thus the Prologue in this production starts with a shock calculated to shake things up. Diana, the Goddess is in a refrigerator. But she's the Goddess of frigidity. Why not show her in a Frigidaire? She has a frigid, rigid mindset. For her, feelings should be sealed in air-tight compartments. So Diana comes out of the freezer cabinet. Her colours are those of frost, and the pale moon. Nature, though, is having nothing of artificial cool. In the egg compartment, Cupid is breaking out of a shell, challenging Diana with bright hues and joyously lively song.
Hippolyte, the son of Theseus is in love with Aricie, who has dedicated herself to the service of Diana, the Virgin Queen. Hippolyte's stepmother, Phaedra, lusts after him. Ironically, her husband Theseus is off saving a friend who has committed adultery with the wife of Pluto, Lord of the Underworld. We enter l'Enfer, where hell fire reigns: the reverse of the refrigerator, where overheated workings splutter in darkness and dirt. Is death more colourful than Diana's sterile temple? The denizens of the Underworld have merrier dances. A group of Flies.with elaborate wings, pirouette gleefully. Decay is part of the cycle of Nature. Without it, no rebirth. Theseus calls on his father, Neptune, for help and escapes. The Parques (The Fates) warn "Tu sors de l’infernal Empire, pour trouver les Enfers chez toi."
Rameau writes a tempest into his music, which even now, when we're used to extreme music, is strikingly dramatic. At Glyndebourne, we get strobe lights, Rameau's audiences, who loved mechanical special effects, would have been thrilled by electricity. Neptune is the God of the Ocean, so his minions are "matelots". At Glyndebourne, they appear as a chorus of French sailors. This is perfectly in keeping with the music. Rameau adapts a hornpipe jig. It's meant to be gay (in the old sense of the word) "Tous les cœurs sont matelots ; On quitte le repos : On vole sur les flots;"
Theseus blames his son for his wife's infidelity. Hippolyte follows Aricie into Diana's world. A dead stag hangs from the rafters. Diana, despite her disdain for passion, is also the Goddess of the Hunt, and an agent of death Aricie is initiated into the cult by being blooded. It's not gruesome, though, for Rameau's sense of elegance precludes overt barbarism. At Glyndebourne, Diana's followers are seen in hunting reds, the men's wigs oddly peaked as if they were foxes. Hippolyte disappears in a puff of smoke, presumably dead. Phaedra dies, too. This time, the Underworld is depicted as a morgue, pointedly designed like Diana's chilled-out Temple. But Hippolyte is no more dead than Theseus was when he went into hell. The lovers are reunited happily ever after. In this production, the ghost of Phaedra appears to observe proceedings. It's a nice touch, which fits in with the mood of healing and kindness. No grand showpiece arias here. Instead, the exquisite "Rossignols amoureux" a delicate air for soprano accompanied only by flute, exceptionally beautifully played by a soloist in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Ed Lyon sang Hippolyte, fresh and youthful but no ingénue. Lyon's voice is assertive, suggesting strength in the character beyond the restraints of the text. That's perceptive. With his genes, Hippolyte is no wimp. Christiane Karg sang Aricie with charm and energy. Katharine Watson sang Diana, and Ana Quintans sang a vivacious Cupid. Emmanuelle de Negri sings the crucial Nightingale Song in the guise of a shepherdess. We know that Cupid has triumphed. François Lis was a magnificently characterful Pluto/Jupiter, well supported by Loïc Felix's Tisiphone. Sarah Connolly (Phaedra) and Stéphane Degout (Theseus) were exceptional, wonderfully assured singing and stage presence.
Together with Lis, Connolly and Degout (one of the finest French singers of his generation) sang their parts in the Paris production last year with Emmanuelle Haïm, where the set was a reconstruction of what the opera might have looked like in 1733. That was important because it clearly showed the cast in costumes that were "modern" at the time. Rameau wasn't depicting Greeks or Greek Gods but archetypes in a setting his own audiences could relate to. So much for the notion of period specificity.
True period authenticity is fascinating, for me, anyway. But it doesn't necessarily do much for modern audiences, who might find the succession of dances less easy to take. The Glyndebourne production, directed by Jonathan Kent, with designs by Paul Brown, doesn't actually "update", to use the much misused term, but treats the opera as something fresh and exciting, as it might have seemed to audiences nearly 300 years ago Like the cycle of Nature, life goes on when things renew. The humour is entirely appropriate, and the dances are brightly characterized. One other good moment: when Sarah Connolly descends off the stage as Phaedra preparing to die, the auditorium goes completely dark for much longer than usual. She's such a big star that audiences expect an exit as dramatic as that. She doesn't get to sing any more, but the memory lingers on.
Most credit, however, to William Christie. What animated, vivid playing he draws from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. How the singers seem inspired by his enthusiasm! He's visionary. He understand the baroque and its aesthetic so well that he can teach us a great deal about the idiom. His Rameau Les Indes Galantes (preserved on DVD) is an education. Christie brings out the vivacious, almost anarchic vigour that is at the heart of French baroque. He's worked with Jonathan Kent before (Purcell Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne). My companion said "If this is good enough for Bill Christie, it's good enough for me". By sheer coincidence we bumped into Christie himself a few minutes later, and told him. He beamed. "That's the sort of feedback I like to hear!". I hope it helped to make his day. Certainly, with this performance, he made mine.
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