Hippolyte et Aricie - Glyndebourne, 29 June 2013 (first night)
Hippolyte et Aricie is Rameau's first opera. It's also Glyndebourne's first step into the French baroque, and something of a risky prospect to stick in front of audiences more used to trad Mozart, Verdi and Britten. Three whole hours, undisturbed by tunes, punctuated by ballets, interweaving psychological tragedy, moral education and wham-bam entertainment. High disaster potential in need of a sure hand.
Rameau's starting point is Racine's Phèdre. Phaedra believes her husband Theseus has died in the Underworld. So she acts out her illicit desire for her stepson Hippolytus, who's in love with Aricia. But Theseus isn't dead. And when he comes back, there's hell to pay. Literally. To this Rameau adds finger-wagging gods, musings on Love and Passion, and a shedload of dancing. It's a tale that could only be told through the medium of opera. Jonathan Kent's production somehow, miraculously, manages to pull everything together without diminishing any element.The unsullied domain of the virgin goddess Diana is a giant fridge, complete with mansized sausages. The ruler of the Underworld, Pluto, lives on the hot, dirty motor behind it with his housefly accomplices. Cupid is a punk chick(en) who emerges, in the first coup de théâtre of the night, from a giant egg. Death is manifested as an abbatoir where the blood-dripping corpses of stags hang in sacrifice to Diana.
Meanwhile Phaedra and her extended family are presented as regular human beings, and all the more empathetic for it. Singers and dancers don't take turns; ballets are extended seamlessly into arias. Dancing sailors celebrate Theseus's unexpected return just as he catches his wife apparently in flagrante with his stepson; the contrast somehow accenting rather than attenuating the drama. Kent sours the notionally happy ending with an ambiguously staged mortuary scene.
The singing is top-to-bottom fabulous. Sarah Connolly's Phaedra is predictably magisterial, but what about Stéphane Degout's baleful Theseus, Ed Lyon's plangent Hippolytus and Christiane Karg's charming Aricia? There are many other smaller (though not all small) parts - one of the challenges of staging Rameau. All are excellently taken.
William Christie tweaks revelatory sounds from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The invention and imagination of Rameau's music is startling even today. Harmonies and textures are constantly shifting - it's anything but routine.
The 25 July performance will be streamed live on the Glyndebourne and Guardian websites, and also shown in cinemas. Highly recommended. If you think you don't like Rameau, prepare to have your mind changed.
production photos (above) Bill Cooper / Glyndebourne Opera
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com