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RAMEAU: Hippolyte et Aricie

spacer Karg, de Negri, Watson, Quintans, Connolly; Lyon, Boden, Degout, Lis; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Glyndebourne Chorus, Christie. Production: Kent. Opus Arte BD7150D (Blu-ray) or 1143D (DVD), 186 mins. (opera), 15 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Conductor William Christie, in video extras to this live performance of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, mentions Anthony Lewis’s landmark 1966 recording with Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk as a life-changing musical experience. What a pity, then, that Christie’s splendid musical take for the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival was undermined by Jonathan Kent’s comically superficial staging.

In interviews, Kent sniffs dismissively at “historicist” staging concepts, and perhaps his success with Purcell’s circus-romp King Arthur encouraged him to treat Rameau’s tragédie en musique with similar cavalier flamboyance. When he says, “You can throw the kitchen sink into it,” he’s not kidding. Kent sets the prologue in a giant refrigerator — stocked with sausages and cartons of orange juice — to symbolize the chilly disposition of Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt, who’s in a power struggle with Amour (Cupid). Costume and set designer Paul Brown outfits the capable Katherine Watson in an icy eighteenth-century frock and powdered wig. Singing from the top freezer compartment and using Baroque-inspired gestures, Diana is no match for the obnoxiously perky and androgynous Cupid (Ana Quintans, sounding shrill), who hatches from a carton of eggs and tosses her requisite punk hair with glee. After Jupiter declares a compromise allowing Cupid to reign for one day, chorus and dancers strip off white fur coats to dance around in their underwear, then exit in triumph bearing giant broccoli stalks.

The pure love of Hippolyte (expressive tenor Ed Lyon) and Aricie (Christiane Karg, in sweet and sturdy voice) is revealed in the goddess Diana’s temple (here a slaughterhouse festooned with deer carcasses and buckets of blood) and is offset by the incestuous passion of Theseus’s wife, Phaedra, for her stepson Hippolyte. If Kent trivializes this domestic tragedy with a suburban dollhouse setting, the superb Sarah Connolly embodies Phaedra’s obsessive love with impassioned and committed singing, especially in the grand “Cruelle mère des amours,” and is matched by Stéphane Degout’s masterfully detailed portrayal of the tormented Theseus. Returning home to find his wife and son in a compromising situation, Theseus blames Hippolyte and calls on his own father, Neptune — who appears in the living-room fish tank — to avenge this violation of nature. In Theseus’s magnificent monologue, with its undulating strings and mournful bassoons, Degout’s physical and musical concentration commands the stage, as Phaedra writhes on her upstairs bed and Hippolyte morosely packs his bags.

For Theseus’s rescue mission to Hades, Rameau outdid himself in the musical ingenuity of ensembles, renowned even in the nineteenth century for their harmonic daring. Dressed in spectacular turquoise scales with flaming accents, the commanding François Lis dominates the infernal scene, especially in Pluto’s driving, energetic vengeance air “Qu’à servir mon courroux.” Degout counters with a nobly sung “Puisque Pluton est inflexible,” backed by rolling arpeggios from the strings. Mercury (clear-voiced tenor Samuel Boden) descends, while giant mosquitoes dance in a perverted Baroque style (choreographer Ashley Page’s best work), and spiders, eyebrows quivering with each trill, spit out their famous trio. 

In several roles, Emmanuelle de Negri, who exquisitely delivers the eleventh-hour “Rossignols amoureux,” is a standout. And, while this is not a life-changing experience, the excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment mines each musical moment for handsome tone and real feeling. spacer 


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