HippolyteJean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Emmanuelle Haïm, Ivan Alexandre, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Andrea Hill, Jaël Azzaretti, Salomé Haller, Aurélia Legay, Topi Lehtipuu, Stéphane Degout, François Lis, Marc Mauillon, Aimery Lefèvre, Manuel Nuñez Camelino, Nicholas Mulroy, Jérôme Varnier | Palais Garnier, Paris, 9 July 2012

This new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie comes at an interesting time in the recent revival of French Baroque opera. While William Christie has moved on to investigate further back through the works of Cavalli, Charpentier and Lully, the arrival - or so it seems - of Rameau’s first opera is freshly put into historical context. In some respects this works in its favour, allowing us to better understand the impact and the influence that Rameau would have on the world of French opera, but on the other hand, through Ivan Alexandre’s rather old-fashioned traditional production, the work suffers in comparison to the efforts that Christie and his collaborators have made towards making these works accessible and meaningful to a modern audience.

Mostly however, thanks to the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm, Hippolyte et Aricie does indeed show how much more modern a composer Rameau was in relation to his predecessors. The opera, the composer’s first and written late in his career, is perhaps still too mired in the conventions of the French tragédie lyrique, but coming after having published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722 and his New System of Music Theory in 1726 and having established his career as an accomplished composer of music for the harpsichord, technically Rameau’s music is much more advanced, breathing a freshness and sense of modernity into the ensemble arrangements, with the choral sections in particular sparking the work into life. In almost all other aspects however, but mainly in narrative or dramatic terms, Hippolyte et Aricie is a very dry, conventional baroque work that doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the composer’s other great works, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Les Boreades or Zoroastre.

It might help if you are familiar with the background of the Greek tragedy Phaedra as told by Euripides, Seneca or Racine - certainly most of the audience in Rameau’s time would have been familiar with the mythology - but even then Pellegrin’s libretto puts its own particular spin on the subject, as making Hippolyte and Aricie the focus of the story might suggest. A lot of the reworking was undertaken in order to meet the demands of the lyric stage, and Rameau’s opera complies with all the conventions of the form, from the opening prologue in a pastoral setting where Diana and Cupid issue challenges to settle a dispute over who reigns over the hearts of men, with a love story then at the heart of the work and scenes set for spectacle and variety in storms and journeys to the Underworld, with Gods and mythological figures dropping in at every opportunity to show off the stage machinery.

The production, directed by Ivan Alexandre with set designs by Antoine Fontaine, does its best to replicate a sense of the original spectacle using period-style props, backdrops and stage effects, the Gods descending impressively on clouds, on top of huge deluges of waves and from the mouths of giant mythical sea monsters. It looks terrific, but none of it really does anything for a dramatic style that already feels dated, failing to find a way that makes a modern audience want to care about the figures in this ancient drama that flits from scene to scene without making a great deal of sense. The colour schemes and lighting used don’t help matters, pale green and sepia under subdued lighting make this look dusty, faded and murky.

There are however compensating factors that make this more than worthwhile. First, of course, is Rameau’s music. If it’s not greatly attuned to the emotional undercurrents, it at least has musical variety (enough for ten operas according to Campra) and is full of wonderful harmonies and melodies. In narrative terms it’s a hugely disjointed work, a series of standalone scenes with linking recitative, interrupted even further and with regularity for choruses and ballet sequences at the most inappropriate of times, all to give the original intended audience the variety and contrast they would have expected, but the leaps and lurches at least allow Rameau to vary the rhythm and tempo with that distinct freshness of character. Most impressive are the choruses, which came across quite stunningly as sung by the Choir of the Concert d’Astrée, as well as a trio of voices of the three Fates. Musically, all of this was directed with a great sense of verve and rhythm by Emmanuelle Haïm.

Also very much in favour of the production was the terrific cast assembled here at the Palais Garnier, even if not all of the roles came across equally as well. Topi Lehtipuu and Anne-Catherine Gillet sang the parts of Hippolyte and Aricie well, with beautiful tone, but caught up in the disjointed narrative, their roles never really came to life and they were as dull as the costumes they were dressed in, slipping into the background. They did have a lot of colourful characters and singers to contend with however, such as Sarah Connolly’s dominant Phèdre, Jaël Azzaretti’s sparkling Amour (Cupid) and Stéphane Degout’s brooding Thésée (Theseus).