There’s a pretty good “making of” extra with the 2013 Glyndebourne recording of Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie. In it, director Jonathan Kent argues that there are essentially two ways of dealing with the French baroque; elegance or “throwing the kitchen sink at it”. To this one might add a weird pastiche of bare chests, stylized gesture and high camp but that’s another story. My best experiences with Rameau have definitely been of the kitchen sink variety. I’m thinking of productions like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins. Kent is a bit more restrained but still pretty inventive which I think is necessary as Hippolyte et Aricie is rather episodic and fragmented and could use some livening up.
It starts out very well with the allegorical prologue set in a giant, and very French, refrigerator. Cupid, brilliantly sung by Ana Quintans, is arguing with Diana, Katherine Watson, about whether love or chastity will triumph. The chorus, bearing giant vegetables join in. We learn that Diana has taken Hippolytus and Aricia under her protection. Jupiter descends and announces that Love will have dominion for one day each year. We also see how dance is going to be integrated into the production. Typically the singers hang around and the dancing goes on around them. We shall see this again later.
In Act 1 we are in a meat safe with deer carcases. Hippolytus (Ed Lyon) and Aricia (Christiane Karg) make their appearance. They sing very stylishly but it’s hard to get any real passion from the music. It’s the musical equivalent of listening to well bred Brits c.1890 trying to chat each other up. The chorus comes in with more deer corpses. There’s lots of b;ood. There is blood finger painting. There are blood slides. Phaedra (Sarah Connolly) appears and announces her eternal hatred of Aricia. If she can’t have her stepson no one else will either. She is fierce in that SC way.
Act 2 is set in Hell where Theseus (Stéphane Degout) is trying to negotiate a deal with Pluto and Tisiphon. There are big costumes. The dancers are a sort of fantastic insect. Pluto, strongly sung by François Lis, gives us a pretty good idea of how the Olympians are going to be portrayed (we’ve already seen him as Jupiter in the Prologue and he will reappear as Neptune). They are very formal baroque. They gesture, the descend on wires and generally conform more to the traditional notions of baroque theatre than the other characters. Theseus escapes Hell but learns that it will only be to find Hell on Earth.
Act 3 seems to be set in a hotel. Phaedra and Hippolytus converse at cross purposes. Phaedra thinks Hippolytus loves her. Theseus returns unexpectedly and hears enough to compromise the two. Hippolytus takes the blame on himself. Theseus prays to Neptune to punish Hippolytus. Then, quite suddenly, after all this heavy stuff, the set turns bright pink and Cupid, the dancers and the chorus enter dressed as rather camp sailors and perform a jolly little choral dance number while Theseus and co sit around looking like death warmed up.
Acts 4 and 5 move us reasonably quickly to a conclusion. Neptune appears to drown Hippolytus. Phaedra commits suicide in remorse but not before confessing to Theseus who is now the remorseful one. This takes us to the final scene set in a morgue. Aricia, alive, is on a gurney. So is a blindfolded Theseus. Hippolytus, dead or alive, is wheeled in. Diana reunites them. Phadra, with obviously cut throat, appears. Theseus and a dancer who flaunts her bare breasts taunt Phaedra. Hippolytus and Aricia sing the “happy ever after” duet but somehow the music can’t quite rise to the drama and it all ends a bit tamely. There’s also a rustic dance with musettes that made me want to hear Treulich geführt played on the bagpipes.
William Christie and the Orchestra of Age of Enlightenment are in the pit and are, of course, absolutely appropriate. François Roussillon’s video direction is judicious and is backed up, on Blu-ray, by quite excellent picture quality and vivid DTS-HD sound. As mentioned, there’s a short but worthwhile “making of” feature. the booklet features an interview with Jonathan Kent and a synopsis.
This is the only Hippolyte et Aricie in the catalogue. It’s good. The production almost pulls together this somewhat incoherent work and the performances are good to excellent. It’s worth seeing for Rameau fans but might not convince the skeptic.