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Posts Tagged ‘Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie’

The fact that Handel is no longer a rarity in the repertoire has made opera houses curious about what is still there to be explored in terms of baroque opera. The Berlin Staatsoper has been particularly serious in its intent of venturing in the most unusual corners of the XVIIIth and XVIIth centuries by programing works of composers such as Telemann and Graun, but it might sound hard to believe that Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is having its Berlin première (in the 1757 version plus borrowed scenes from previous editions) in 2018. Actually, it is not hard to explain. French tragédie lyrique is a genre that never travelled well until France took a prominent position in the movement of historically informed performances. Many French musicians (or foreign artists who have made France their home such as William Christie) found a mission in performing and recording the pillars of French music, such as the works of Charpentier, Lully and Rameau. With them, a generation of singers made their names singing French baroque music. We could quote Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Mireille Delunsch. Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie has pride of place in terms of popularity. Since the now legendary performances in Aix-en-Province under John Eliot Gardiner with Jessye Norman and José van Dam, it has been recorded in studio by William Christie (with Lorraine Hunt) and Marc Minkowski (with Gens and Bernarda Fink) and live in the theatre on video, most notably in the Palais Garnier in a spectacular production by Ivan Alexandre conducted by Emanuelle Haïm with Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout (both singers would appear again in a video from Glyndebourne conducted by Christie).

Normally, a performance like this in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden would be conducted by René Jacobs, but this time the former principal director of the Berliner Philharmoniker was the driving force behind this project. He had already conducted Rameau’s Les Boréades decades ago and found in it an opportunity for both him and his wife, Magdalena Kozena, to perform an opera considered by both particularly innovative at the time in its dramatic potentials. However, the peculiarities of staging an opera with so many dance numbers made him carefully choose his creative team. After some years of negotiation, he finally had choreographer Aletta Collins as director and Ólafur Eliasson as designer. Whereas Sir Simon has opted for a period instrument orchestra in the Freiburg Barockorchester, Ms. Collins and Mr. Eliasson had decided to recreate the impact of baroque theatre not by being faithful to the letter, but by recreating the experience of integration between stage and auditorium and the use of all kind of theatrical effects to dazzle the audience. Even if one must concede that the staging tended to be static and short in drama, the light effects that flooded the hall in color were simply otherworldly. The dance numbers were very effective, creative and well-integrated in the concept as a while. I am not so convinced about the unbecoming and sometimes awkward costumes for both leading ladies, though.

I won’t lie. Rameau works for me better in small doses rather than in a whole bottle. Although something like Les Indes Galantes is intrinsically problematic in terms of story (basically, it has none), it is far more varied than Hyppolite et Aricie, whose melodic numbers tend to sound like one another. None of them is as catchy as Forêts paisibles or exquisite as Tendre amour. The conductor seems to be aware of this and offered a hearty, vigorous performance, more German in its sheer energy than French in its poised and spirited suppleness. This is not a problem per se, but that meant that the orchestra – in the renovated Lindenoper’s warm acoustic – was loud and a group of accordingly louder singers would have done all the difference in the world.

Let’s talk first of the two singers who were, as the French say, bien dans leur peau, those in the title roles. This is not Anna Prohaska’s first staged Rameau and, being a specialist in baroque music, she proves to be comfortable with the style and the language. Moreover, her silvery soprano is an unusual choice in a role taken by creamier-toned singers, a choice that pays off in its young-sounding and bell-toned impression. Aricie is a role that tends to the faceless, and an edgier sound gives it some character. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute-contre has more substance in his high notes than what is one used to hear. As Hyppolite is usually referred to as “the hero” , a little bit testosterone is welcome. This does not mean that Mr Van Mechelen does not float his high notes in head tones as he is supposed to, only that he manages to do that without sounding disincarnate. Elsa Dreisig too was very well cast as Diane, her lyric soprano homogenous, round and spontaneous.

I am not so sure about the royal couple, good as both singers are. Magdalena Kozena does not lack intensity in the role of Phèdre, but her voice does lack amplitude for it, especially in her lower register. We have heard it with the above mentioned Norman, Hunt, Fink and Connolly, all of them richer in sound and darker in tone. In comparison with these ladies’ tragical grandeur, Ms. Kozena sounded just annoyed. Gyula Orerndt too sang with vehemence and engagement, but he shares with his Phèdre the small scale. Some small roles were very well sung (and danced): the sweet-toned Slavka Zamecnikova and Serena Saenz Molinero offered praiseworthy performances. The Staatsoper chorus does not usually sings French baroque music, but acquitted itself quite commendably too.

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