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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear