Friday 26 July 2013

Hippolyte et Aricie - Cinema broadcast from Glyndebourne

Hippolyte et Aricie (Act II, Hades) at Glyndebourne, (c) Bill Cooper
Hippolyte et Aricie (Act II, Hades) at Glyndebourne,
(c) Bill Cooper
I missed Jonathan Kent's new production of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie live at the Glyndebourne Festival, but was rather keen to experience Kent and designer Paul Brown's extravagant production so seeing it in the cinema seemed a good alternative, especially as my last experience of opera in the cinema was Zefirelli's film of Verdi's La Traviata, and things have moved on a bit since then. I went along to the live screening on 25 July at the Ritzy in Brixton. It wasn't strictly live, the film started at 6.15pm whereas the live event had started over an hour earlier, and we had just a 30 minute interval rather than a full 90 minutes.

The evening started with a short film about Glyndebourne and in the interval there was a film about the making of the opera. This latter, though short, was most illuminating as it included interviews with both Kent and Brown and helped put into focus their concept behind the production. Apart from that it was a high quality film of a live opera performance. Ed Lyon and Christiane Karg sang the title roles, with Sarah Connolly as Phedre (Hippolyte's step mother) and Stephane Degout as Thesee (Hippolyte's father and Phedre's husband), plus Julie Pasturaud as Oenone (Phedre's confidant). Katherine Watson (replacing the indisposed Stephanie d'Oustrac) was the goddess Diane, and Ana Quintas was l'Amour (Cupid). Francois Lis was Pluton, with Lic Felix as the fury Tisiphone, Samuel Boden was Mercure and Lis also played Neptune (Theseus's father). William Christie conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement.

It says something about the particularly discursive nature of French baroque opera that they could take a story as compact and powerful as that of Phedre, and turn it into something so discursive. It is significant that the opera's title is not Phedre, though that character is one of the primary engines of the plot, but Hippolyte et Aricie. Just as Handel would surround the tragedy of Aceste with the usually flummery of plotting and awkward situations in Italian opera seria, so Rameau would surround Phedre and Thesee with sea monsters, divertissements and dancing.

I don't think that we have yet managed to absorb quite the right way to stage French baroque opera. I'm not talking about the spectacle, but the general stage language. It took a long time for Handelian opera seria to become naturalised on the modern stage and for directors to use its conventions to theatrical use rather than struggling against them. We haven't reached that with Lully and Rameau, and directors still struggle to combine the elements of the staging and to integrate movement and dance.

David McVicar's production of Charpentier's Medee (also with Sarah Connolly) at the London Coliseum went some way in this direction, it was one of the best modern versions of French baroque that I have seen and the dancing was often used dramatically. In Hippolyte et Aricie Kent, on the other hand, seemed to separate the dancers from the singers so that the moments of Ashley Page's choreography came over as extra divertissements rather than dramatic necessity. There were too many moments when the chorus were milling about when it was clear that they should have been dancing. At the Coliseum, McVicar set Medee in the 1940's when social dancing was the norm so that having the chorus dancing on stage was dramatically coherent. Kent's Hippolyte et Aricie had no such rationale, and in some scenes the dancers were costumed radically differently from the singers.

Where I think I really lost patience with Kent's production was at the end of Act Three. Thesee has arrived home unexpectedly (he's come from Hades and everyone assumed he was dead), to find Hippolyte and Phedre in a clinch. Neither dare's say anything and Thesee assumes the worst about his son and decides to ask his father, Neptune, to punish Hippolyte. At this point, Rameau interrupts things to give us a chorus and dance of Thesee's people to welcome him home. This is deliberate, an interruption to strengthen the dramatic tension, Phedre and Thesee must put on a good face and watch (something that Degout and Connolly did superbly). But Kent, Brown and Page gave us an extended divertissement of comic dancing sailors. Rameau's music here isn't comic and it isn't nautical, and Page's choreography almost equalled in banality Ronald Hynd's (in)famous choreography for Gluck's Alceste at Covent Garden (with Janet Baker). This was definitely an 'entertain the punters just before the dinner interval' moment.

Hippolyte et Aricie (Prologue) at Glyndebourne, (c) Bill Cooper
Hippolyte et Aricie (Prologue) at Glyndebourne,
(c) Bill Cooper
Whilst I did not always like Kent and Brown's ideas, I could generally appreciate the rationale behind the production. The fundamental premise of the opera is the opposition between the cool rational world of the goddess Diana and the hot, amorous world of Cupid. Most of the action takes place in Diana's realm, so we had a series of cool places. The prologue took place in a fridge (with Diana living in the ice box), the temple of Diana in act one is a meat store, with hanging carcasses of deer (Diana, hunting, get it!). Kent clearly likes contrast and opposition in his stagings so whilst in act one the priestesses and attendants of Diana sang of the beauties of life under her rule, they slit the throats of stags, collected blood and underwent gory rituals.

Similarly in the last act, which was set in a morgue (another cool place) we saw not only Hippolyte resurrected but also Phedre and Thesee and whilst the concluding music is gloriously pastoral, Kent subverted this by having it sung and danced by people in mourning dress in a morgue.

For all the staging's brilliant dramatic coups (the prologue in a fridge, Hades as the machinery behind the fridge with the inhabitants as flies and other insects), the general tenor of the design was rather in thrall to the opening scene. Having created the giant fridge, Brown had to live with it in every scene, so that the acts three and four, which take place in Thesee's palace and in a grove sacred to Diane, were fitted into the huge carcass of the fridge. This meant that Thesee's palace looked like a piece of mid-20th century avant garde architecture and to complement this Brown created an interior that was 1950's styled to within an inch of its life.

More damaging, the scene in act four where Hippolyte was taken by a wave, was completely fudged. It might have looked better in the theatre, but in the cinema the wave came over as simply a rather poor video projection and Ed Lyons could be seen quite visibly clambering down into a hole in the stage. Considering the complicated nature of much of the staging, this essential element seemed lacking.

And it points to another fundamental problem with the staging. Whilst individual scenes were staged in a quite spectacular manner, I don't think that the staging's fundamental rationale was really obvious and the result came over as a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent drama. And, despite its discursiveness, Rameau's opera is fundamentally dramatic. Kent and Brown played it just the way they'd played Purcell's Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne, as a series of glorious moments attached to an incoherent plot. I think that for all the seriousness with which William Christie and his cast attacked Rameau's music, there was a lack of seriousness in the staging.

Thankfully, the musical elements were quite, quite superb. Christie had managed to get some very fine French declamation from his cast. Sarah Connolly was on searing form as Phedre, completely within the genre but using Rameau's music to create such an unforgettable character. And her performance, and that of Degout, helped to explain how this type of drama should work with the discursive elements setting off the more taut dramatic moments.

Degout was not perhaps quite as searing as Connolly, but then his character is basically that of a decent man in troubled circumstances. His excursion to Hades in act two is completely irrelevant and you are never sure why he was there, but Degout sang with a glorious feeling for the prosody of Rameau's text setting and you were always rooting for his character.

Ed Lyon did his best with Hippolyte, the character isn't the most dynamic and, poor thing, probably only ninepence to the shilling, he's no idea that Phedre lusts after him. When he finds out, in Hippolyte's only really dramatic scene, he does nothing. Lyon did create a lovely rapport with Christaine Karg, who was a rather spirited Aricie. Julie Pasturaud was nicely intense in the small but important role of Oenone, who lies to Thesee in act three to support Phedre.

Katherine Watson was gloriously cool and pellucid as Diane, with Ana Quintans as a feisty cupid. Francois Lis turned in a great character turn as Pluton, besides cropping up as Neptune and Jupiter! The remaining cast were all superb, I was particularly taken with Rameau's music for the three fate's, here sung by Mathias Vidal, Aimery Lefvere and Callum Thorpe as big spiders.

Of course, under the watchful baton of William Christe, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were on superb form.

It is wonderful that someone is trying to stage French baroque opera with the same sort of oppulence and elan that the original stagings had, but I do wish that Kent and Brown had a little more confidence in Rameau's music and that their staging had felt a little like entertainment for its own sake.

And the cinema? It was a very pleasant experience, the sound was good and the seats comfortable with plenty of room (more than you can say in some theatres). The audience was predominantly white, middle aged and middle class, not at all like the demographic of the young people congregating in the Ritzy Cafe outside. But I have to say, if I had to choose between a cinema showing (even a live one) and live opera then the live opera would win every time. Even if the staging was minimal and low cost, you can't beat live theatre.

Update: Many thanks to a correspondent for pointing out that it was Katherine Watson, one of William Christie's "Jardin des Voix" singers, who rose (literally, in view of the high wire moments) from the chorus, to take the part of Diane. Stephanie D'Oustrac is unfortunately indisposed for the whole production.

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1 comment:

  1. I also watched the live relay, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    I would like to point out, though, that it was the "gloriously cool and pellucid singing" of Katherine Watson, one of William Christie's "Jardin des Voix" singers, who rose (literally, in view of the high wire moments) from the chorus, to take the part of Diane. Stephanie D'Oustrac is unfortunately indisposed for the whole production.


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