For as prestigious and exclusive a music festival as Glyndebourne, to put on a new production of an obscure French tragédie lyrique amid this year’s triple anniversaries of operatic heavyweights Britten, Verdi, and Wagner is audacious. The genre has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance in the last few decades, thanks mainly to William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, but Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) in particular remains very much on the fringes of today’s operatic scene. Invented by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) for the court of Louis XIV, tragédie lyrique – conversational, linguistic, and declamatory in style – has little use for the grand gestures or indeed the stars of Italian opera seria. Instead, it combines a strong proclivity for rhetoric with marvellous spectacle and divertissements (short ballets informed by and designed to reflect upon the dramatic action) in an effort ‘to astonish and delight’. Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau’s first operatic work (of this or any kind), written when he was fifty years old, was first performed at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, on 1 October 1733. As William Christie states in the festival booklet, ‘it is arguably the most dramatic and the most perfect of the tragédies lyriques [he] ever wrote’. For its Glyndebourne premiere (in fact, this is the first time Rameau has been performed at the festival), Christie is reunited with director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown, with whom he collaborated on the celebrated production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen several years ago.
Loosely based on Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy, Phèdre, Simon-Joseph Pellegrin’s libretto in five acts with prologue dramatises the ancient tale of Phaedra’s (Sarah Connolly) illicit and incestuous desire for her stepson Hippolytus (Ed Lyon) as a meditation upon the classic Apollonian-Dionysian divide between chaste love and erotic passion, as Cori Ellison writes in the programme notes. Jonathan Kent adds: ‘There is an argument for both – in that a life lived without passion is a life diminished; and yet the anarchic life of passion is unsustainable’. It is this dilemma which informs Hippolyte’s central conflict between Diana and Cupid, introduced at some length in the prologue. Their squabble cuts a swath of destruction through the protagonists’ hearts – especially that of its tragic queen, whose impossible and irrational love is thwarted by Hippolytus’s steadfast devotion to Aricia, daughter to his father Theseus’s (Stéphane Degout) enemy. When news of her husband’s death arrives, Phaedra moves quickly to separate the young lovers, determined to claim the blissfully and naively unaware Hippolytus for herself. His repulsion and horror at her unwelcome advances propel the increasingly erratic queen to attempt suicide, which Hippolytus prevents. It is this dramatic scuffle that Theseus, recently and inconveniently escaped from the clutches of death, returns to witness. Fatally misjudging events, he accuses his son of rape and invokes divine judgement, effectively condemning Hippolytus to death. Despairing of redemption, Phaedra confesses her guilt, reveals her stepson’s innocence, and kills herself, which in turn plunges Theseus into an existential crisis that has him, too, begging for the very death he has unjustly brought down on his son: the gods may be just, but as Oscar Wilde knew, ‘when [they] want to punish us, they answer our prayers’, a lesson Theseus learns the hard way. At this point – we are at the end of Act 4 – all the signs are for tragic denouement. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, things go dramaturgically and, quite frankly, disastrously wrong. Constrained to adhere to the strict conventions of tragédie lyrique, Pellegrin resolves the dramatic tension by adding a happy ending, a complete and utterly ludicrous non sequitur which sees Hippolyte restored to life, reunited with Aricia, and subsequently crowned king of Athens. Astonishing though this may be, it is anything but delightful.
Despite the high drama of what is an otherwise sublime domestic tragedy (notwithstanding the botched finale), musically, Hippolyte falls curiously flat. In vain one waits for any of the voices to break free from the conversational monotony and understated politeness of the score. With very few exceptions, among them Theseus’s final aria in Act 3 – a wonderful piece of word painting in which he conjures the rage of the sea to swallow and kill his supposedly criminal son – the work saunters on in a well-behaved manner which is undoubtedly elegant, but hardly touching. Not even Phaedra’s agonised soul-searching, delivered with great aplomb and dramatic gesture by Sarah Connolly, or the excellent Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, conducted with usual precision by William Christie, or indeed the phenomenal Glyndebourne Chorus quite redeem what is, in essence, a very boring work. The casting choices further complicate matters: while Connolly and Degout deliver substantial performances of considerable psychological depth and vocal dexterity, their roles sadly fail to do any kind of justice to the qualities of their voices. Ed Lyon’s tenor, although well-honed, lacks lustre, exacerbated by an undemanding role – as a result, Hippolyte makes for a singularly bland and nondescript hero. The same goes for Christiane Karg’s Aricia, a character one cannot help feeling the opera could very well do without. Karg commands a very fine soprano and makes the best of an entirely unremarkable part, but together the pair of young lovers fails to elicit any kind of emotional response.
Hippolyte’s petulant and ever-warring gods, Diana and Cupid, were sung by Katherine Watson, replacing Stéphanie D’Oustrac, who had to withdraw from the production due to illness, and by Ana Quintans respectively. While Watson’s lyrical and elegant soprano is well suited to the cool, not to say frosty, goddess of chastity, Quintans’s all too slender instrument hardly made any impression at all. Rameau’s Cupid is anarchical, mischievous, and irreverent, something of an energizer-bunny (or, in this case, chick) from hell. While there was comic relief in abundance – Quintans is a wonderful actress – very little of the role’s restless energy carried into her performance: more often than not, she could hardly be heard over the OAE’s luscious accompaniment. Baritone Aimery Lefèvre, giving his Glyndebourne debut in a very brief yet memorable appearance as Arcas, and the superb French bass François Lis in the triple roles of Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune, proved welcome exceptions. Lis in particular gave an electrifying performance as a magnificently deviant lord of the underworld in Act 2, his booming and well-modulated voice a timely reminder for Theseus that actions and decisions taken in life reverberate in eternity, and that not even the greatest of heroes can hope to cheat, let alone escape his Fate(s).
Jonathan Kent’s production struggles valiantly against the sense of cultivated boredom Hippolyte exudes. Evidently, a lot of thought has gone into its realisation, and it is a credit to Kent and to designer Paul Brown that it manages to engage the audience despite the opera’s musical and dramatic shortcomings. Brown comments: ‘It is the duty of any production team to honour the intention and creativity of the author. A piece is informed by the time and place in which [it] is performed so that it can resonate but it is the composer’s music that is at the heart of any decision we make’. While it may be difficult to gauge authorial intention across the centuries, the production is well conceptualised, coherent, and extremely well executed throughout, with a delicately struck balance between modern and period styles as well as careful attention to detail (the costumes of the gods are particularly delightful). Its central motif is the gigantic ice box introduced in the prologue as the frosty and monochrome abode of Diana and her followers, which is hilariously invaded by the irrepressible Cupid, and elements of which reappear throughout the opera: in Acts 2 and 3, for instance, set in Hades (the greasy back of the pristine refrigerator) and in Theseus’s chilly trap of a home, it stands in as a cage for damned souls both dead and alive. For the visually stark and idiosyncratic final tableau, which wrings some meaning from the nonsensical libretto, it is made to turn into a giant morgue, yielding up a curious harvest of dead and not-quite-dead heroes. As Jonathan Kent explains, the idea was to find ‘cold places where emotion and the heat of passion could be frozen, in images that 21st-century audiences might recognise: a cold-store, say, or a mortuary, or a frozen domestic hell where all love is eradicated’.
Unfortunately, at times sleekness fades into blandness, and subtlety degenerates into camp cuteness (there is a particularly excruciating pink bit involving sailors in Act 3). Ashley Page’s divertissements represent another problem along those lines, given the crucial role dance played in French baroque opera. While well-integrated with the action, his generic and rather disappointing choreographies fail to enchant or divert – the Prologue’s danced version of a Boschian garden of earthly delights and the final ballet of shrouded fates aside. Generally, however, the world Kent and Brown have created is imaginative, elegantly simple, and persuasive, strategically-placed nods to ancient and baroque performance practices included (a giant projection between acts of a face imitating the stark emotional states symbolised by ancient theatre masks is a particularly effective device for setting the mood). There is no shortage of merveilles either, which contributes to its considerable visual charm.
The production may be a little rough around the edges, as is the music, but as one has come to expect of Glyndebourne, it summons astonishing creative talent to conjure a beguiling artistic vision. Its express aim to render Rameau palatable to modern audiences comes with its very own set of problems – the purists among contemporary critics might and have argued that in this particular case, style comes very dangerously close to eclipsing substance – but despite its flaws, Hippolyte et Aricie has something remarkable to offer: an insight into a very different kind of baroque sensibility, a sensibility which, although no less complex or refined, is far removed from the colourful extroversion of Italian or Italianate opera seria. I’d recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the repertoire.
Hippolyte et Aricie continues at Glyndebourne until 18 August 2013, with a live screening on 25 July. See www.glyndebourne.com for details.