Tag Archives: William Christie

Heavy Hipermestra

21 May

It’s quite difficult to judge an audience’s reaction to an opera sometimes.  I could have sworn that a substantial part of the audience for the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra on 20 May were deeply bored and, like the man sitting next to me, falling asleep and desperately waiting for the thing to end.  At the interval, people was using words like “interesting” and “different” suggesting at least an ambivalence about it.  Yet at the end, the applause seemed warm and enthusiastic.  Make no mistake though, this is not a show for the faint hearted or for operatic novices.

From what I can gather, this seems to have been about the third performance of the piece ever and the first since 1680.  Unlike many of Cavalli’s operas it was commissioned and first performed at an aristocratic wedding with lavish sets and dances and lasted over five hours.  I don’t know whether this was with or without intervals.   William Christie had cut out a lot of paraphernalia (include the gods and goddesses at the opening and had got it down to slightly less than three hours of music.

It has rather a good plot.  King Danao has 50 daughters.  His brother, Egitto, has 50 sons.  To cement peace between them, the 50 daughters are married to the sons.  Danao, then gets his daughters to kill all their husbands because of a prophecy from an oracle.  Only Hipermestra, who is really in love with her husband, Leonice, refuses and lets him escape.  Leonice returns with an army for revenge and, as part of the diplomacy is told that Hipermestra is unfaithful.  He still ravages the kingdom.  Hipermestra throws herself off a building but is saved by one of Juno’s peacocks and the confusion is resolved with a happy-ish ending.  There’s a sub-plot for Arbante (in love with Hipermestra) and Elisa (in love with him) and there is the usual share of cynical servants and, of course, a tenor in drag as the nurse.

I also thought that Cavalli’s setting of it was masterful.  It feels Shakespearean in its length and pacing and the scope of its discussion of dilemmas, personal and political and about the effects of war.  There are some beautiful scenes for lovers and ones of considerable passion and emotion and, of course, quite a lot of bawdy comedy.  It struck me as a really good opera.

So what might an audience find difficult?  I think the first arises from the nature of Cavalli’s operas.  There is a lot of recitative and it tends to move seamlessly into arias which are not really what most audiences think of as arias.  There are no big tunes or really memorable parts, little opportunity for bravura singing and they are short.

This means that there is a huge premium on the words and following the plot. Since composers at this time saw themselves as servants of the words, this is understandable, but this causes a real problem for audiences whose comprehension of Italian is limited.  The most enjoyable Cavallis that I have seen (and the ones which made me realise what a great composer he is) are those that have been sung in English – Giasone at Buxton in the 1980s and the ROH’s recent L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  You need to have direct understanding of the words and, even with surtitles, there was a barrier between performers and  audience.  In many operas you get round this because the music itself is inherently wonderful to listen to.  That doesn’t apply so much to Cavalli.

The next problem is that the first part lasted two hours and five minutes.  That is an awfully long time for an audience to be sitting trying to engage with dialogues that it doesn’t really understand.  An interval would have worked wonders. You really have to be dedicated to last that out.

Finally, many people will probably feel uncomfortable with Graham Vick’s staging.  It’s updated to a contemporary middle east where beheadings, stonings, ill-treatment of women and the destruction of cities are common-place.  There were a lot things that an audience at Glyndebourne wanting to escape might not have liked to be reminded of.  No expense has been spared on the sets, but it’s not a comfortable evening.

For myself, I enjoyed the production, mostly, while wondering whether, in fact, the work bears the full weight that Vick is imposing.  The dialogues, the interaction between the characters are beautifully observed.  Stuart Nunn’s sets are very handsome indeed and chart the move from wealth and lavishness to war and destruction brilliantly.  Even the orchestra, costumed as a rich, paid arab band for the first half, become refugees in the second (there’s a glorious solo violin passage at the beginning of that half).

There are some doubts.  The show begins as you arrive with a number of the brides and grooms wandering round the garden being photographed and there is a spoof news item on the video screens setting the scene and placing it in Glyndebourne.  One of those examples of Glyndebourne taking itself too seriously which is one of the tiresome things about the place.  I wasn’t sure also that he’d got the balance of comedy and seriousness right.  Mark Wilde’s glamorous, hugely enjoyable performance as Berenice, the nurse, might have been even better if he’d been singing in English rather than mugging furiously.  The coup de theatre of Juno’s peacock happened and was astonishing, but was also funny and left the audience giggling.  I’m not sure how you avoid that or if you need to.

No doubts at all about the musical performance, at least to a non-specialist.  William Christie and the very small orchestra achieved wonders – he barely conducted and they followed the singers and worked with them to provide a complete performance – that would have been that much more effective if you actually understood the words.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Emoke Barath, from Hungary, was strong, beautiful and dignified in the title role.  She has an ideal voice for this (I’d love to hear her in Handel) and she made an immensely characterful, sympathetic performer.  She was matched by Raffaele Pe as Linceo – a very fine Italian counter-tenor who caught the eroticism and swagger of the role.  Ana Quintans was delightful as Elisa and Benjamin Hulett did the best piece of work that I’ve seen from him as Arbante – an outstandingly good performance by a very confident, compelling tenor.

Renato Dolcini was splendid as Danao and there was really good work from Antony Gregory and Alessandro Fisher as assorted servants.  This was a cast that was entirely committed and confident.

So this was a really high quality piece of work in every respect.  Just what you’d expect from Glyndebourne.  Anyone interested in Cavalli or the baroque should go.  Whether it will really appeal to a wider audience is another question.  It did feel like hard work.

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.