Time Travelling: Hippolyte et Aricie from the Opéra Comique

Rameau – Hippolyte et Aricie

Aricie – Elsa Benoit
Phèdre – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Œnon – Séraphine Cotrez
Diane – Eugénie Lefebvre
La grande prêtresse de Diane/Une matelote/Une Chasseresse/Une Bergère – Lea Desandre
Hippolyte – Reinoud van Mechelen
Thésée – Stéphane Degout
Tisiphone – Edwin Fardini
Neptune/Pluton – Arnaud Richard
Mercure – Guillaume Gutierrez
Première Parque – Constantin Goubet
Deuxième Parque/ Arcas – Martial Pauliat
Troisième Parque – Virgile Ancely

Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon.
Stage director – Jeanne Candel.  Video director – François Roussillon.

Opéra Comique, Paris, France.  Saturday, November 11th, 2020.  Streamed via Arte Concert

This new production of Hippolyte et Aricie was to be the centrepiece of the Opéra Comique’s fall season but, in common with so many events across Europe currently, the run was virtually entirely cancelled thanks to the government’s decision to enter into a second lockdown.  During the press conference announcing this new confinement, the culture minister of the French Republic, Roselyne Bachelot, herself a keen opera lover, made a point of announcing that the production would be recorded and broadcast for posterity, in order to allow the work that had gone into its preparation to be preserved.  Given the circumstances, it’s the best we could hope for, but watching it this afternoon made me realize that there is absolutely no substitution for being able to experience the unamplified human voice live, or the range of colours and physical impact of Raphaël Pichon’s conducting.

The production was confided to Jeanne Candel – although interestingly the program book, published on the Opéra Comique’s website, has Candel responsible for the mise-en-scène, but Lionel Gonzalez responsible for ‘dramaturgie et direction d’acteurs’.  They give us a visually sumptuous staging, one that feels in many respects unobtrusive.  It allows the narrative to flow easily and logically and the characters to give believable and cogent performances.  There’s a lot to look at – an initial white curtain at the start of Act 1 is shot at by the chorus, with the bullets seemingly producing a variety of colours.  This is removed to display an impressive set (Lisa Navarro), a central elevator through which characters make entrances and exits, surrounded by stairs that at one point seemingly bleed with red paint.  Candel keeps the singers of the Pygmalion chorus busy, whether costumed as cleaning ladies, or perambulating the set with dog heads, or wearing swim suits wearing giant cartoon heads.  Costumes for the principals appear to be antique chic, but the remainder of the cast wears modern dress.  Similarly, the evening ends not with the chorus ‘que tout soit heureux’, but with Lea Desandre’s Bergère singing her ‘rossignols amoureux’ in modern dress while carrying a backpack and pushing a bicycle.  It could have been that Candel was making the point of the fact that the story between Hippolyte, Aricie, Phèdre and Thésée was one of antiquity with contemporary resonance, but I’m not quite sure.  Given the clarity of the storytelling and the competent direction of the principles, it just felt unnecessarily confused.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

That said, this was a gripping evening and led to a doubling of regret that it wasn’t possible to experience live.  The Opéra Comique assembled a superb cast.  Elsa Benoit, a former member of the ensemble at the Bayerische Staatsoper, was a beguiling Aricie.  She opened the evening with a ravishing ‘Temple sacré’, singing with a liquid legato, the voice opening up on high with a scintillating brightness thanks to an easy natural vibrato.  Diction, as it was throughout the cast, was clear.  Reinoud Van Mechelen reprised his Hippolyte, familiar from the Staatsoper Berlin production back in 2018.  He has the style at his fingertips, his bright haute-contre able to negotiate the tessitura with ease, and he used the words to colour the tone masterfully.  There were, at least as recorded here, a few very brief and passing moments of troublesome intonation, something I’ve never noticed with him before.  What I appreciate about Van Mechelen’s singing of the role is that always finds some warmth to the tone, shading it with love and delicacy.

Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo brought her claret-toned mezzo to Phèdre’s music.  Having had the pleasure of hearing Brunet-Grupposo live on several occasions, I have always been struck by the size and warmth of her instrument.  Here, however, she felt rather contained in her tragic laments, as if holding back and not allowing the voice to open up fully.  Her singing was always utterly secure but I longed for her to open the floodgates, to spit out the text with commanding vehemence.  Her Phèdre was undoubtedly an impressive tragédienne but she did leave me with a sense that she had a bit more to give.  Stéphane Degout gave us a sensational Thésée.  His baritone is absolutely even from top to bottom.  And what a top – Degout opened up, up there thrillingly.  His masculine tone was always warm and solid, and he savoured the text with delicacy.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

I was also particularly impressed by Lea Desandre in her multiple roles.  After a rather disappointing Despina from Salzburg, Desandre here sang with such freshness of approach and technical command.  She shaded her closing ‘rossignols amoureux’ with delicacy, the voice soaring with ease, yet Desandre was able to pull the tone right back without compromising the integrity of the sound.  She turned the corners nicely and demonstrated an impressive trill.  Arnaud Richard blustered impressively, but it did sound like his roles sat slightly low for us grainy bass-baritone, perhaps lacking the ideal sepulchral depths required.  Séraphine Cotrez brought an attractively strawberries and cream soprano to Œnon, while Eugénie Lefebvre sang Diane’s music with an imperious manner, the text nicely forward.

As always, the quality of the singing and playing from the Pygmalion forces was second to none.  The chorus sang with firm tone, impeccable ensemble (despite the intricate stage business they were involved in) and innate understanding of the idiom.  The edition Pichon chose also lost the prologue and there didn’t seem to be musettes present in the final act.  That said, the sheer variety of tonal colour he conjured up from his players was ravishing, apparent even through the small screen.  Pichon’s tempi always felt utterly logical and the evening seemed to speed by in a heartbeat, helped by the irresistible sense of rhythmic impetus that he sustained.  In the house, it must have been physically overwhelming.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

This was a captivating performance of a wonderful piece.  One that lived through the text, extremely well sung across the board, with choral singing and orchestral playing of the very highest quality.  The staging allowed the action to unfold in a clear and logical way, even if occasionally some ideas didn’t always add up.  Thanks are due to the Opéra Comique and its supporters for making this stream available, although mixed with regret that we were unable to experience it live.  For anyone who loves this rep, this is a must see.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for operatraveller.com has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.

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