Baroque and roll: Exquisite frustrations and lurid vulgarity

Alexandra Coghlan reviews <em>Hippolyte et Aricie</em> and <em>La rondine</em>.

Hippolyte et Aricie; La rondine
Glyndebourne, Lewes; Royal Opera House, London WC2

From the moment the male chorus of Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie make their entrance through a packet of pork sausages (cue much Gallic nudging and winking) into the interior of an oversized fridge, it’s clear we’re not in Versailles any more. The excess, the bawdy humour, the exuberance and affectation of the 18th-century original are all here in Jonathan Kent’s riotous production but what stops it being the success it comes so maddeningly close to is a smugness and knowingness that blunts Rameau’s keenly human tragedy.

Unbounded by the conventions and restrictions that govern Italian or German opera seria, French baroque has a fluidity uniquely suited to the sudden surges and cumulative momentum of psychological drama. And it doesn’t get much more psychological than the ageing Phaedra’s unrequited obsession with her stepson, Hippolytus. Rameau’s score darts between court formality – measured out in the mincing steps of the minuet – and interiority, and is still, in the hands of William Christie and theOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a bit of a shock to Handel-accustomed ears. Musical expectations are thwarted, resolutions delayed, until we, like Phaedra, are driven mad with exquisite frustration.

This is a real ensemble show, with cameo performers (including Ana Quintans, puckishly excellent as Cupid, and Emmanuelle de Negri’s round-toned High Priestess) all matching the central quartet for stylish poise. Stéphane Degout’s Theseus is superb, a quiet foil to Sarah Connolly’s passionate Phaedra. Even in Kent’s suburban Sixties semi, she doesn’t lose the scope of Rameau’s emotions which paint this as much more than a dirty little fixation. Ed Lyon (Hippolytus) and Christiane Karg (Aricia) command our absolute attention, even as dancing sailors and an orgiastic chorus do their utmost to distract.

Placing the gods in the 18th century and the mortals in the 21st is a neat conceit, heightening the cruelty of the former and bringing the latter into closer emotional focus. But, like so much else here, what starts off as simple elegance degenerates by the end into a muddle of too many ideas, too little developed. Yet perhaps some of this confusion may be blamed on Rameau himself, whose story flits restlessly between Phaedra and the young lovers, uncertain where to settle.

Visuals may have been the downfall of Hippolyte but they are the redemption of the latest revival of Nicolas Joël’s La rondine at Covent Garden. We’ve seen this production a few times now, but still Ezio Frigerio’s exquisite art-deco designs draw mutters of excitement as the curtain rises on Acts I and III. It’s almost enough to distract from the lurid revelations about the soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s private life that have emerged this month. Almost, but fatally not quite.

Gheorghiu’s Magda is past her vocal best, lagging affectedly behind Marco Armiliato’s orchestra, tonal brilliance now swaddled in husk. And whereas Connolly brings a vulnerable dignity to her Phaedra, Gheorghiu’s older seductress teeters on the edge of vulgarity. It’s a portrayal that unbalances the delicacy of Puccini’s barely-tragedy, making something distasteful out of an endearingly imperfect miniature. None of the voices in this revival is exceptional, though Charles Castronovo proves himself a safe pair of hands as a solid if bland Ruggero. The Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas makes an unexciting debut as Lisette, and Edgaras Montvidas is far from his best as the poet Prunier.

Whatever the problems with its drama, La rondine is a glorious score, generously laden with big tunes and bigger hearts. Armiliato’s swooning interpretation would be the envy of the John Wilson Orchestra. What a shame, then, for such passion to be harnessed to such a bloodless revival.

“Hippolyte et Aricie” runs until 18 August. “La rondine” runs until 21 July

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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