William Christie, Jonathan Kent, Ed Lyon, Christiane Karg, Sarah Connolly, Stéphane Degout, Katherine Watson, François Lis, Julie Pasturaud, Samuel Boden, Aimery Lefèvre, Loic Felix, Ana Quintans, Emmanuelle de Negri, Mathias Vidal, Callum Thorpe, Charlotte Beament, Timothy Dickinson
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
On previous experience of this early work of French Baroque opera at a production in Paris a few years ago, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie can often feel like a rather dry classical text adapted to the lyric stage by an experienced composer already well-renowned for his academic approach to the musical form. With William Christie leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however in this rather more lively production for Glyndebourne, it's evident that the elegant rhythms and melodies of the work can actually be sensitive, expressive, witty, thoughtful and movingly tragic. The scenes in Hippolyte et Aricie moreover also offer opportunities for great spectacle, another vital component of Baroque opera and Glyndebourne is traditionally good at that. The 2013 production does indeed offer considerable spectacle, and if its relevance is not always clear it is at least in tune with the tone and the spirit of the work and the musical interpretation.
Questions about the relevance of Jonathan Kent's staging are sure to arise however in the Prologue. In Hippolyte et Aricie, it's a typically Baroque one that has opposing deities in dispute with one another in a way that is to have a profound affect on ordinary mortals (and some semi-deities) over the course of the subsequent drama. Quite why this takes place inside a giant fridge is hard to fathom and likely to come as a bit of a shock to the bewildered viewer, but there's no question that it fully lives up to the requirement to provide wonderful spectacle. It looks marvellous and is certainly inventive as cauliflower clouds hover over the stage, a lemon slice becomes the sun, and broccoli stalks descend to turn into trees. It's at least appropriate to characterise the icy detachment of the goddess Diana by confining her to the ice-box, while a fiery Cupid, whose influence is to cause such havoc to Diana's followers and worshippers, hatches out of an egg - but what on earth are the gods doing in a fridge in the first place?
Well, in addition to being a classical text, Hippolyte et Aricie is - as this production emphasises in its own very stylised way - very much a domestic drama, a point emphasised when the Three Fates warn Theseus at the end of Act II that he will escape from the Underworld only to find Hell at home. Hell as it happens is depicted cleverly and imaginatively here in Paul Brown's amazing designs as existing at the back of the very same fridge where the gods reside, and if you've ever ventured behind your own kitchen, you'll know how accurate an analogy that is. The Fates' prediction of "domestic Hell" proves to be true for the son of Neptune, who returns to find that his wife Phaedre, believing Theseus dead (usually a requirement for access to the Underworld), has fallen in love with his son Hippolytus. Mythological it might be and inspired by the actions and whims of the immortals, but Cupid has indeed brought disharmony into the formerly very secure, cool and detached "innocent" world of Diana's followers and their blood sacrifices. The fall-out is very real and domestic, Phaedre bemoaning that she is "unable to kill this detestable love" for her stepson.
What's missing of course is harmony between the Gods and, thereby, between ordinary mortals. Neptune appeals to Pluto for the release of Theseus from the Underworld in Act II saying that "the well-being of the universe depends on your common harmony", but the balance has been disturbed by Cupid's intervention, inspiring Hippolytus to love Aricia, in the process incurring Phaedre's jealousy and suppressed feelings for Hippolytus. As an opera, in its structure and in its musical arrangements as well as in its subject, Hippolyte et Aricie also operates very much on this notion of harmony and the balancing of elements, and Rameau - as academic a composer as he might be - makes the case not only structurally and harmonically, but with a sensibility for the beauty of such imperfect human sentiments in the sphere of what makes them aspire to be gods.
William Christie fully explores all the melodic and harmonic richness of what Rameau expresses so brilliantly in the musical arrangements, but also balances this with the requirements of the singing. Spectacle ("le merveilleux") and entertainment ("divertissement") are other factors that count towards this balance and harmony of all the elements, and that's all there too in the gorgeous but dramatically pointless ballet interludes and in the big and smaller details of the production design. The fridge in the Prologue is followed by a more traditional scene in the forests for the followers of Diana that nonetheless reflects the horrors (hanging deer, corpses dragged across the stage, copious blood) of the sacrifices. The Hell behind the fridge meanwhile has dancing flies, infernal devices in the shape of power units, with all sorts of horrible gunk and creatures caught up in the extractor grille.
As well as being visually inventive and thematically attuned to the work, the sets also demonstrate good storytelling technique that is accessible and allows the audience to better engage with a work that what could otherwise appear rather dry and fusty. Some elements however work better than others, so while it's meaningful to have the home of Theseus and Phaedre look like a tastefully-decorated suburban semi-detached (shown in cutaway cross-section in a manner reminiscent of Katie Mitchell's designs for Written on Skin), you miss out on the traditonal spectacle of Neptune's grand entrance by reflecting it through a living-room fish tank. The later acts might not always find imagery as strong the fire and ice of the earlier acts - Act V taking place in a mortuary - but there is some attempt to retain a dramatic narrative in the ballet sequences, and the singing performances too are strong enough to take up the lack of drive in the latter half of the work.
Several of the best performers seen in the Paris production reprise their roles here to even more dazzling effect, while those that have been changed are often just as fine if not better in the roles. That means we not only have the excellent Stéphane Degout as Theseus, but we also have the simply stunning Sarah Connolly again in the role of Phaedre. In addition to being merely a formidable presence, as she was in Paris, Christie's arrangements and Connolly's performance also manages to elicit some sympathy for her character's predicament. As Hippolytus, Ed Lyons is perfect for the intentions of this production, his voice delicate but also strong enough to be capable of matching and standing up to Connolly/Phaedra. If he was weaker, this wouldn't work half as well. Christiane Karg however just didn't work for me as Aricia. It can be somewhat of a bland role, but Karg didn't really have anything to enliven it here. Ana Quintans was a bright Cupid however, François Lis majestic as Pluto, Neptune and Jupiter, and Katherine Watson an icily aloof Diana.
On Blu-ray, this Hippolyte et Aricie looks and sounds every bit as spectacular as the production itself, with a bold colourful video transfer of the performance and crystal clear sound mixes in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Aside from the Cast Gallery, there's only one extra feature on the disc, a fifteen-minute making of that covers all aspects of the production, interviewing Christie and Kent, but takes a particular interest into Paul Brown's unusual costume and set designs. The disc is BD50, region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.