Hill, Andrea


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).

LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Michael Schønwandt, Willy Decker, Laura Aikin, Jennifer Larmore, Andrea Hill, Marlin Miller, Wolfgang Schöne, Kurt Streit, Scott Wilde, Franz Grundheber, Robert Wörle, Victor Von Halem, Julie Mathevet, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Marianne Crebassa, Damien Pass, Ugo Rabec | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 18th October 2011

I know it’s considered one of the major works of 20th century opera, and it’s certainly one of the most important and influential works advocating the twelve-tone system – but I still find Lulu a difficult opera to love. Surprisingly, it’s less to do with the complexities of the musical arrangements, which actually feel perfectly fitting for the nature of the opera’s subject – with the use, abuse, decline and horrible murder of a woman at its core, it’s not supposed to be pretty – as much as failing to find a strong dramatic thread or conventional character development to grasp onto. But then, Alban Berg was presumably challenging these traditional concepts also.

It’s questionable then whether an opera that is built upon the deaths of many of Lulu’s lovers and which ends with her own murder as a prostitute at the hands of no less than Jack the Ripper, should be “prettified” by the impressive set designs and eye-catching choreography of Willy Decker’s production. Brightly lit with clean lines, Decker’s production has a sense of design and colour that makes it look like a Pet Shop Boys concert set in an IKEA store. Whether it looked appropriate or not, it at least felt right and, most importantly, it worked on a conceptual level, proposing an interesting new way of looking at Lulu.

Central to the opera and the image of Lulu is a portrait painted of her in the first scene of Act 1 – a critical scene that sets the tone for what is to follow. Interestingly, in Decker’s vision, the painting is made up of several canvasses that isolate and fetishise each part of her naked body like an exquisite corpse. An exquisite corpse – now that’s a great central concept and image for Lulu, for the objectification of the young woman under the gaze of countless men, each projecting their own lusts and desires upon a figure who is a composite of so many female and feminist archetypes.

Lulu

That of course is the strength of the opera itself, but it’s also the aspect that is equally difficult to pin down dramatically or in any sense of characterisation, so Decker’s staging makes that a little more meaningful. Decker’s arrangements, placing the action within an arena for this combat of the sexes that ensues, the whole colourful cabaret watched over by a chorus of dark-suited anonymous figures in hats, all work towards this vision, even taking into consideration (definitely a part of the intention of Berg’s opera itself), the audience itself voyeuristically being a part of this woman’s abasement and destruction, all for their entertainment.

I still didn’t feel that I gained any greater understanding of the complicated parade of characters that flit through Lulu’s life (which may be a good thing), but every expression of lust, jealousy, joy, anguish, anger and violence was certainly fully felt and brought out in the production, in the singing and in the incredible performance of the Paris Orchestra. As compelling as events were on the stage, my attention was constantly drawn to Michael Schønwandt conducting the infinitesimally detailed score, drawing it all together remarkably. Lulu is one of Laura Aikin’s signature roles – I’ve seen her sing it before on DVD in a fine performance in Zurich under Franz Welser-Möst – but she still looks and sounds terrific. Utterly commanding in the role, she is riveting to watch. There were however no weak elements whatsoever in this production for the Paris Opéra, with Jennifer Larmore a wonderful Count Geschwitz, and Kurt Streit notable in the role of Alwa.

The production used the now common 1979 version of the opera, with the third act, left unfinished after Berg’s death in 1937, completed by Friedrich Cerha. The performance of the score by the Paris orchestra, as mentioned above, was something of a revelation – or perhaps, since this was the first time I had been to a live performance of Lulu, it just needs to be experienced in the theatre with a truly world class orchestra. That’s what we were treated to here, with the addition of great singing and a visually impressive but thoughtful stage production.