Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Going for Baroque

June 29, 2012

Andrea Hill and Jaël Azzaretti with chorus Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Agathe Poupeney 2012
I started my European opera tour this summer in Paris where the young guys are all coiffed like Usher circa 2001 and wear high-top sneakers. It’s a look, regardless of whether or not its au courant, and it works for many of them. Which is kind of how I felt about the first opera I saw on my current European trip, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier. Of course, the similarity in the above comparison falls apart when it comes to the “works for them” bit since Ivan Alexandre’s production, which is new to Paris after being created for Toulouse, is a throwback to something that may not be worth revisiting.

Rameau’s first opera is a Baroque gem filled with mythological characters including gods, sea monsters, and young lovers. It revisits the story of Phèdre and her love for her stepson Hippolyte. He meanwhile has a chaste love for Aricie, which is blessed by the goddess Diane, but is also put in jeopardy by his father Thésée. Alexandre and the design team have gone for something old-fashioned. Very old-fashioned, in fact, in their attempts to recreate the look and theatricality of an 18th-century opera production from the costumes, to the painted backdrops, to the gods who are lowered from the fly space on clouds suspended by ropes. The flat lighting mostly from the foot of the stage reinforces this visual style. It’s pretty to look at, and despite its contrast with the Garnier’s hyper 19th-century surroundings, it looks at home on the stage. Sweet Jesus, is it ever boring, though. In another throwback to the period, principal performers come to the foot of the stage, strike poses and stay there. They’ve got singing to do, but none that requires pesky movement. Even the stage trickery used to create mild surprises here and there fell mostly flat.

What’s worse, this notion of an ersatz recreation of a 18th-century staging isn’t even a new idea in the last thirty years. The Metropolitan Opera regularly trots out a few of Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s productions from decades ago that are essentially the same thing. Those shows (and I’m talking to you here La Clemenza di Tito) are painfully dull much of the time, and Alexandre does an amazing job of recreating that sensation in this Hippolyte and Aricie. Blogger Zerbinetta has had some great points to make recently about production teams not taking Baroque Opera seriously enough to really make it work well. And while gag-filled cynicism some Baroque operas face today can kill them (And I'm talking to you here The Enchanted Island), this kind of almost perfectionist reverence for something that may have never been in the first place isn't doing the genre any favors either. Alexandre and his team need to take Hippolyte and Aricie by trusting the drama at the material's core in order to actually interpret it instead of simply turning it into some kind of museum piece or treating it as something that needs to be apologized for.

It’s not totally a lost cause, though. Emmanuelle Haïm and her Le Concert d’Astrée give a lively period-informed performance of Rameau’s score. She makes room for the vocalists without being overindulgent and produces a great dynamic range with this kind of ensemble. The vocalists themselves were a mixed bag. The best was Stéphan Degout’s Thésée who was sizable and certain enough for a king. The other big name in the cast was Sarah Connolly who sang Phédre with lovely tone and enough fire to bring Racine to mind. Jaël Azzaretti had some lovely detail in her passages as L’Amour and got a warm ovation at the curtain calls. Anne-Catherine Gillet and Topi Lehtipuu were the lovers Aricie and Hippolyte respectively but weren’t particularly engaging and had sloppy attacks here and there. Despite some good musical moments, it wasn’t enough to shoulder the weight of a strange, almost willfully naïve staging that mired everything down for the long evening. The show has four more performances in Paris through mid-July.


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