Kitchen sink duly chucked

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.

1.fridgeIt 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.

2.vegetablesIn 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.

3.loversAct 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.

4.bloodAct 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.

5.hellActs 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.

6.sailorsWilliam 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.

7.morgueThis 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.

8.danceI’ve left the screencaps full size so that you can see the picture quality.  Just click to get the full version.

8 thoughts on “Kitchen sink duly chucked

  1. I saw it in the house and whilst the visuals were as fun as you can see, the music bored me stiff (minus the lively instrumental interludes or whatever they were), especially, as you say, the title roles’ duets. Also the singers failed to project (save for SC). I suppose the projection issue does not come off on the DVD?

  2. John,

    “The music bored me stiff”

    “I really don’t think the music is Rameau’s best”


    According to William Christie “Hippolyte et Aricie” is…. “the best piece Rameau ever wrote”

    Not sure I agree either.

  3. J,

    Rameau’s “Hippolytus and Aricia” is surely one of the greatest first operas ever. The way it reveals its restrained beauty and splendid amalgam of rhythm, sonority, and poetry struck me as particularly gentle and gradual. Not a work to yield its strengths at first (or even 21st hearing). But as recently as 2 years ago at the Glyndebourne premiere I was surprised to read the words of one critic:

    “Musically, “Hippolytus and Aricia” falls curiously flat. In vain one waits for any of the voices to break free from the conversational monotony and understated politeness of the score. With very few exceptions, the work saunters on in a well-behaved manner which is undoubtedly elegant, but hardly touching. Not even Phaedra’s agonised soul-searching, delivered with great aplomb and dramatic gesture by Sarah Connolly, or the excellent Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, conducted with usual precision by William Christie, or indeed the phenomenal Glyndebourne Chorus quite redeem what is, in essence, a very boring work”


    Why do you think “Hippolytus and Aricia” has not become more popular with opera lovers? And why do the operas of Handel get so much more attention?

    Many friends tell me that they find something more human, spiritual and accessible in Handel’s work and that Rameau will always be for ‘special tastes’ but I cannot accept this.


    • That’s a really good question. First off, I’d have to qualify it with “outside France” because I think Rameau is popular enough in his native land. Outside France I would hypothesise three possible answers. First off, I think people conflate Rameau with others, especially Lully, in a mental construct of “French baroque”. The essentially anarchic and human elements of Rameau get filtered out in “favour” of the complex allegories and twiddly, twiddly ballet music. Secondly, the economics of producing long operas with lots of ballet means they aren’t done much, so they aren’t familiar. Then there’s Handel. I think a lot of the popularity of the Italian operas is spin off from the English oratorios. There are a handful of really good Handel operas but a lot that are formulaic and boring. All this may simply boil down to a huge section of the opera audience likes what it is familiar with, whether works or directorial style, and gets viscerally uncomfortable when asked to look at something different.

  4. Clare,

    My take on the question: French baroque opera and even for many Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande doesn’t match what most people expect from opera because the text matters. So it’s more difficult to connect to. Thus, major companies only infrequently produce these operas and therefore not many people have a chance to develop a taste for them.

    You’re one of the lucky ones!

  5. Your question cannot be easily answered, but we do have the issue of the historical negative
    bias toward French Baroque music that was established, to some extent at least, by the German-trained refugees from Nazi Germany who had a large impact on American musicology. Theater music from Lully to Rameau largely suffers the same fate.

    Personally I DO think much of this music is too sophisticated for many audiences. And as mentioned above language is quite important in French music, so if one does not want to study and understand the text, much of the meaning is lost. Remember also that Rameau employs more stylized characters that were attractive to the aristocratic audience of the 18th century, but do not translate so well to modern times.

    Rameau’s works are very rich for those who will take the time to comprehend them, but therefore perhaps indeed their appreciation will be reserved only for those with ‘special tastes’

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