Futuristic Antiquity: Hippolyte et Aricie at the Staatsoper Berlin

Rameau – Hippolyte et Aricie

Aricie – Anna Prohaska
Phèdre – Magdalena Kožená
Œnon – Adriane Queiroz
Diane – Elsa Dreisig
La grande prêtresse de Diane/Une matelote – Sarah Aristidou
Une Chasseresse – Slávka Zámečníková
Une Bergère – Serena Sáenz Molinero
Hippolyte – Reinoud van Mechelen
Thésée – Gyula Orendt
Tisiphone – Roman Trekel
Pluton – Peter Rose
Mercure – Michael Smallwood
Première Parque – Linard Vrielink
Deuxième Parque – Arttu Kataja
Troisième Parque – Jan Martiník

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Freiburger Barockorchester / Simon Rattle.
Stage director – Aletta Collins

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, December 8th, 2018

While the Berlin Staatskapelle is on tour to Australia, the Staatsoper Berlin has given its main stage over to early opera for a series of Barocktage.  One of the key events of this series was this Hippolyte et Aricie, in a staging by director and choreographer, Aletta Collins, with light design, costumes and sets by the renowned Berlin-based Icelandic-Danish artist, Ólafur Elíasson.  The outstanding Freiburger Barockorchester was invited to the pit and a starry cast assembled under the direction of Simon Rattle.  I caught the final performance of the run.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

What we got was a futuristic vision of a story set in antiquity.  In an interview in the extensive program book, Elíasson mentions a discomfort with the term ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, preferring instead to see this production as a ‘social-democratic space’.  Indeed, in many respects, it’s a three-way collaboration between Collins’ direction and choreography, Elíasson’s light installations, costumes and set, and Rattle’s conducting.  There’s an openness here, a bringing together of diverse art forms, that I found most interesting.  It struck me that the act of experiencing this show as a spectator, was very much a sense of being immersed.  Immersed in these remarkable light installations, but also immersed in the irresistible rhythmic impetus of Rameau’s fabulous music.  What Elíasson achieved was staggering – bathing the room in a glow of light that pulled the audience in.  The lights were used as much in the way of regie as the direction of the principals themselves, guiding the action and making it live.  The image of the Temple of Diane, composed of interlocking streams of light, so simple yet so visually ravishing, was just captivating.  In Act 2, a highly impressive coup de théâtre transformed a mirror image of the audience in the theatre almost imperceptibly into a visually mesmerizing view of the underworld.  The visual effects frequently left me open-mouthed in awe of their beauty, as well as their technical skill.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

The stage was inhabited by highly believable characters who lived within, and became an organic part, of what we saw on stage.  There were moments at which we lost track of whether we were looking at singers or dancers, with the dancers suddenly transforming into singers.  The personenregie felt natural for the most part, although there were a few stylized arm movements for the chorus where I did wonder if they added something to what we were seeing.  That said, there was so much emotion brought out by the characters, even when alone on stage – Phèdre’s lament was particularly gripping, thanks to a powerful performance by Magdalena Kožená.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

Indeed, Kožená’s Phèdre was sung from the heart, becoming a genuine tragédienne right in front of us.  She used the language to project the sound, tearing out the diphthongs and making the language as musical as the notes themselves.  Her sappy mezzo sounded full and warm.  It must be admitted that diction across the cast was excellent, rendering the surtitles superfluous.  Kožená tore up the stage, dominating it with sheer passion, and the costume designed for her by Elíasson, composed of a multitude of small mirrors, sent beams of light into the auditorium, thereby amplifying her performance.  Anna Prohaska sang attractively as Aricie.  Her opening ‘temple sacré’ was sung with the simplicity of a folksong, yet with ravishing improvisatory freedom in how she ornamented the line.  The intonation issues that have previously been a feature of her singing were not as pronounced tonight.  After a verbally indistinct Dircé in Médée here back in October, it was a pleasure to hear Elsa Dreisig genuinely use the text as Diane.  Her crystalline soprano is ideal for this music with its easy agility and pearly tone.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

Reinoud van Mechelen was a highly endearing Hippolyte.  The stratospheric, gravity-defying tessitura was dispatched with ease.  He brought out much passion and beauty in his Act 4 number, and his total command of the style and impeccable use of text to shade the tone of his juicy haute-contre, were most impressive.  Gyula Orendt was an impassioned Thésée, dispatching his music in a big, brawny baritone that rose from a solid bottom, to a full and penetrating top.  He wasn’t afraid to sacrifice beauty of tone to illustrate the depths of Thésée’s despair, giving us a commanding illustration of the entirety of his character’s journey.  The remainder of the cast reflected the exceptional standards of the house.  What was especially striking was how, even though many in the cast were not baroque specialists, every single vocal performance was so utterly stylish and the text understandable.  Having Peter Rose as Pluton was luxury casting and he descended to the sepulchral depths of this liquid bass with impressively full tone.   A shout out to Sarah Aristidou and Slávka Zámečníková who not only sang enchantingly, but also joined in most impressively with the dancing.  The especially selected members of the house chorus sang with notable stylishness and firm tone.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

That sheer rhythmic drive that Rattle brought to the score meant that the evening flew by.  His tempi always felt vital and alive, propelling the music forward and pulling spectators in.  The Freiburgers played outstandingly for him.  String intonation was always true and the larger than usual body of strings gave a depth of texture, combined with the sound of the gut strings, that seemingly produced a myriad of colours.  The brass were on their best behaviour all night and the horns were so delectably raspy.  In the final act, the pair of musettes rang out resplendently.  The whole band played as if one – breathing, phrasing, living this glorious score together.  The result was spectacular.

Photo: © Karl und Monika Forster

This really was a fabulous night in the theatre.  Musically, it was absolutely first rate, in a highly imaginative staging, that captivated and transformed this tale of antiquity into a living, breathing, futuristic slice of humanity.  Elíasson dismisses the term ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ as somewhat loaded – and perhaps it is.  Yet, I find it hard to describe what this Hippolyte et Aricie is as anything else.  It’s a completely immersive meeting of the arts – music, dance, visual arts – in a way that is completely compelling and absolutely life-enhancing.  An inspired, and inspiring, evening in the theatre.

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One comment

  1. I would like to share a note and question on Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie”. Here is a commentary from one of my reference books on the French Baroque.


    Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” is unmistakably French in style. The way it reveals its restrained beauty and splendid amalgam of rhythm, sonority, and poetry strikes me as particularly gentle and gradual. Not a work to yield its strengths at first (or even 21st hearing / viewing). In contrast to the Italian opera seria, its freely constructed scenes are extended tableaux consistng of numerous miniature sections and incorporating a nonconventional mixture of airs, ariettes, duets and other ensembles, choruses, and descriptive instrumental music accompanying mimed action and dance. Its recitatives have more distinctive musical profiles than their Italian counterparts, and its mostly syllabic airs draw in dance rhythms in the French manner. Except in the larger arias and the dance-songs, the recitative style forms the basis of the solo vocal writing […] Handel’s Italian Baroque is the world of the great singer, of great virtuosity. But Rameau is far more subtle because it’s linked up with language. Language becomes a kind of music itself and it’s grafted under this extraordinary thing which is the Rameau musical style […] In the early 20th century Claude Debussy feared that “Hippolyte et Aricie” — a work which for more than a century had been consigned to oblivion — might be misunderstood and that this very French type of art, so old and so far removed from modern tastes and customs, might not be received with the deep and lively sympathy it merited. I fear our ears have lost the faculty of listening with delicate attention to music such as this, which welcomes with charming courtesy those who know how to listen to it.

    And here are several comments which appeared after the Glyndebourne Festival performance in July 2013.

    1. Musically, “Hippolyte et Aricie” falls curiously flat. In vain one waits for any of the voices to break free from the conversational monotony and understated politeness of the score. With very few exceptions, the work saunters on in a well-behaved manner which is undoubtedly elegant, but hardly touching. Not even Phaedra’s agonised soul-searching in Act 4, quite redeems what is, in essence, a very boring work.

    2. Rameau’s score darts between court formality — measured out in the mincing steps of the minuet — and interiority, and is still a bit of a shock to Handel-accustomed ears. Musical expectations are thwarted, resolutions delayed, until we are driven mad with frustration. I believe this work will remain side-repertory mainly for absolute opera experts (‘freaks’).

    3. This opera is based in a very strict aristocratic tradition that makes very little sense to us today. The result is opera that is less emotionally engaging. I once had a directing student in Brazil who staged quite a nice “Hippolyte et Aricie” but the Latin audience found it emotionally cold and too cerebral.

    4. It has taken Rameau’s five act opera “Hippolyte et Aricie” a mere 280 years to travel from Paris to its first production at Glyndebourne: was it worth the wait? I found myself underwhelmed at the end of an evening that consisted of so much effort. I foresee a revival in four or five years time, and then a quiet withdrawal from the schedule — perhaps for another very, very long period. I am delighted to have seen this “Hippolyte” but I won’t be rushing to see it again.

    5. In his first opera Rameau created a more sophisticated musical edifice and it has not really caught on with the wider public. Much of the piece seems somehow too precious for consumption outside its native land. Without prejudice, I will pass over it lightly.

    Two questions.

    1) Several people have told me that they find something more human, spiritual and accessible in Handel’s operas and that Rameau’s “Hippolyte” will always be for ‘special tastes’…. Do you agree?

    2) Does it surprise you that this beautiful opera has not attracted a larger contingent of passionate admirers?



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