Glyndebourne tries Rameau

20 Jul

A few years ago, I seem to recall Sir George Christie saying that they didn’t do Rameau at Glyndebourne – it was a Handel house.  I had quite a lot of sympathy, always having found Rameau difficult.  What was special about this production of Hippolyte et Aricie was that it very nearly succeeded in making Rameau interesting and almost made me wish that they’d do some more.

This is my sixth opera by Rameau.  I remember seeing one not so long ago and deciding that, really, I understood why there was a French revolution.  Let me expand.  You have a very formal setting usually with gods setting the scene which lends an artificiality to the piece.  Then there may be a really interesting scene between some characters.  Then it gets interrupted by a divertissement.  Then you go on to something else and, just as you’re getting interested in that, there’s another divertissement.  It’s as if the piece is designed for you not to get involved in the plot and to make you as remote as possible from the characters.  Compare that with Handel where, irrespective of the silliness of the plot, the characters interact and there’s a directness of communication with the audience which gets permanently interrupted by the archaic fashions of the French at the time.  I can admire a lot of the music, but I find his operas difficult to like, let alone love.

On this performance, Hippolyte et Aricie (which I saw on 19th July) is one of his best.  There are four really strong characters – Hippolytus, Aricie, Phaedre and Theseus and some very fine scenes indeed – I admired particularly the ones involving Phaedra, Theseus’s rage and sorrow and the love scene for Hippolytus and Aricie – all of which were great until most of them were interrupted by one of those divertissements.  There are some marvellous things in the music – especially where Rameau uses the orchestration to paint pictures of the natural disasters.  The word setting and declamation is marvellously done.  And yet I can’t help longing for some real vocal acrobatics and bravura.

I doubt that it could have been better performed from a musical point of view.  William Christie’s conducting was dramatic, at one with the direction and brought out the beauties of the score.  There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Ed Lyon proved himself to be a real star in this repertory with his clear, committed and beautifully sung Hippolytus, matched by Christine Karg’s clear, limpid, sympathetic Aricie.  Sarah Connolly sang with her usual commitment and magnificence as Phaedra and Stéphane Degout was a really wonderful Theseus – firm voiced and passionate, making him probably the most interesting character on the stage.  Among the smaller roles, I was hugely impressed by François Lis as the three main gods – Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune.  He has a fabulous bass and managed his roles very expressively indeed.  I wanted to hear him in much more.  Musically, this was as good as it gets.

Jonathan Kent was in his best Fairy Queen-mode in directing this and, I think, was absolutely right in identifying that these operas need to have really bravura visual invention.  He identified Diana’s kingdom as being one of chilliness and frigidity and so we opened in a refrigerator – Cupid hatched out of an egg in there and there was delightful use of broccoli sticks, lemon slices and more to create a landscape.  Hades was set behind the fridge peopled by creatures you’d rather not know about.  The third act was set in a suburban house – Hippolytus with a typical teenager’s room and the scene between him and Phaedra and the subsequent discovery by Theseus was done absolutely naturally and intently.  Kent even used the divertissement to effect with Theseus and Phaedra not in the mood to watch the jolly sailors.  In Act IV, Phaedra came up from the pit after Hippolytus had been dragged down into the water and descended there again to confess to Theseus.  He got marvellously natural acting performances out of his singers, while enabling them to make the moments of high drama, really dramatic and interesting.  You believed in the love of Hippolyte and Aricie, while Miss Connolly and Mr Degout gave intense, full-blown, passionate performances that were fascinating to watch and convinced you of the drama of the piece.

Up until this point, I thought that Kent had marvellously managed the tightrope between wit and seriousness and created a convincing, invigorating, fascinating interpretation – the best since Mark Morris’s Platée.  I think there were two misjudgements in Act V.  First, he divided it into two scenes with a pause that you didn’t need after Theseus’s soliloquy.  And then, he decided that he didn’t like the pat ending, so set the last scene in a morgue where there was patently going to be very little physical love between Hippolytus and Aricie and the spectres of Theseus and Phaedra were going to be with them.  It lead to a very down-beat ending that was not, I think, what Rameau wanted and which, I felt, the piece could not sustain.  If this production comes back – and I hope it does – he ought to rethink this.

I don’t think Rameau will ever be a repertory composer in the way that Handel has become.  The form is too obscure, expensive and artificial, I think.  However, his operas could well be suited to festival productions of this sort, where a strong, thoughtful director and an outstanding musical director can make an interesting, enjoyable evening of the piece.  Very strongly recommended, especially for Rameau-sceptics.



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