It has taken Rameau’s five act opera Hippolyte et Aricie a mere 280 years to travel from Paris to its first production at Glyndebourne: was it worth the wait? Well, not only was this the first Hippolyte at Glyndebourne, it was the first ever Rameau opera there, and the first thing to say is that the production of this French import was certainly lavish, with no expense spared to “reinvent Baroque opera for the 21st century”, as the programme notes put it. With the same director/designer team who produced a visually memorable Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne a few years ago, Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown respectively, expectations were high that something similar would be achieved, and in some ways it was. But – and it is a medium-sized ‘but’ – the juxtaposition of French baroque music, with its very particular musical idiom, and cutting edge, technological (and often witty) stage imagery just did not always work. It proved entertaining at the outset to see gods and mortals engaging in intellectual discourse in the various compartments of a giant fridge, and amusing to see Hades recreated among the dirt and dust of the pipework and condensers when the giant fridge was turned through 180 degrees to reveal its ‘other side’, but the lavishness sometimes got in the way of coherence, and the spectacle became somewhat bitty: almost an admission that the musical and dramatic discourse was not going to hold our attention, so we might as well see some stage wonders meanwhile. And so, taken all in all – the whole evening lasts four and a half hours – modified rapture for the work as a piece of music theatre, but free and frank admission that there are plenty of lovely moments along the way.
Musically it was as splendid as could have been predicted from the line-up of William Christie, in the pit, at the helm of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Christie loves this music – indeed, is passionate about it, and his enthusiasm proved infectious. The attack was always in the right place, the Glyndebourne Chorus alert and responsive, the harmonies and strikingly modern dissonances explored to the full by a top-notch orchestra playing for someone who can inspire them to great things. There were times – having taken in the latest stage picture – when it was sheer pleasure simply to close one’s eyes and imagine the world being conjured up by this accomplished music. So full marks for musical preparation and stylish execution – exactly as expected.
Singing from the freezer compartment in the very first scene, Katherine Watson (a late replacement for the indisposed Stephanie d’Oustrac) made an immediate favourable impression as Diana, secure across her range, expressive in her declamation and cutting a fine figure of authority. She was challenged by the perky Cupid of Ana Quintans, whose lighter, more soubrettish soprano perfectly expressed the chastity/free love debate that was going on between them. On a more earthly plane, Ed Lyon as Hippolyte and Christiane Karg as Aricie both made strong early impressions vocally: Lyon proved to be eminently watchable, but as the evening progressed I found myself hoping for a little more variation in the colour and dynamic of his attractive tenor voice. Karg on the other hand warmed up the more she was onstage and produced some lovely singing: she has an attractive stage presence and did herself and the role full justice.
Enter the eight young dancers, choreographed for this production by Ashley Page. I loved Page’s choreography for the recent evening of Britten Dances at the Aldeburgh Festival, and had high hopes that he would produce some really striking dance images for this novelty at Glyndebourne. I have to say that on the whole, I was slightly disappointed: the dance interludes were fine, but not particularly exciting: it was almost as if the conventions of Rameau’s music had stifled rather than released Page’s inner creativity. So neither the wild, abandoned Dionysian scene, nor the bloodstained post-hunting scene, really took off in the way they might have done. Everything the dancers did was watchable, and perfectly agreeable, but the spark or frisson of the great choreographer that Page can be was missing. What we had, in the end, were conventional ballet interludes.
And so to the main event – the relationship between Theseus and Phaedra that is at the heart of the opera and that provides the main non-dialectical interest (in other words, there is a real narrative suddenly in play). Stéphane Degout made a splendid Theseus, his firm, incisive baritone providing at times almost a Heldentenor-like ring to his part, at others an expressive warmth that made his character very appealing. The part, and the “shall I, shan’t I” dialectic that Theseus has to put himself through, could prove to be somewhat wearisome in the hands of a lesser artist, but I found Degout to be convincing and very much in command: an impressive assumption of the role. Opposite him, Sarah Connolly as Phaedra was in wonderful voice, conveying all the anguish of the character, but making her seem to be menacing and then suitably creepy in her advances to Hippolyte, through a splendid variety of vocal nuances. Connolly in full voice is always a wonderful experience and in this role she did not disappoint. A final word of praise for a delightful cameo: Emmanuelle de Negri gave us the song of the nightingale that stayed in the mind long after the stage and the gardens of Glyndebourne had emptied.
So – was it worth the wait? I found myself underwhelmed at the end of an evening that consisted of so much effort, so many clever touches, so many excellent features, but ultimately a rather sterile debate about the nature of things and, despite everything, a lack of onstage drama. Theatre there is a’plenty, and fine singing and dancing: but the conventions of Rameau’s time simply did not allow for the music theatre to which, three hundred years later, we have become accustomed. So I foresee a revival in four or five years time, and then a quiet withdrawal from the schedule – perhaps for another very long period. I am delighted to have seen this Hippolyte, and acknowledge its many fine qualities – but I won’t be rushing to see it again.
Photos: Royal Opera House