Baroque and roll: Exquisite frustrations and lurid vulgarity

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

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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 appears in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint