The story of Euripides’ “Hippolytus” concerns a young man, Hippolytus, who worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and ignores Aphrodite. The latter punishes him by inflaming his stepmother, Phaedra, with passion for him, leading to a triple disaster.
When Racine took up the tale in “Phaedra,” he catered to the tastes of his age by giving the young man a love interest, Aricie; and when Rameau needed a libretto for his 1773 opera, he used the Racine version, gave it a happy ending, and called it “Hippolyte et Aricie.” This is the title of the Opus Arte DVD that holds a 2013 performance of the work, given at the Glyndebourne Opera House and conducted by William Christie.
I was going to ignore this “concept” production, but it gives me the perfect example for my talk on “How not to give an opera.” Director Jonathan Kent explains in the program notes that his intent was “to reinvent Baroque opera for the 21st century” and follows up with a lot of abstract nouns to justify his staging.
He explains that the north of France can get very cold while the south is warm. From this, he sees the goddess Diane’s chastity as cold and Cupid’s love as hot. So he sets the prologue of the work in a REFIGERATOR! (Was he actually paid for mocking the opera thus?)
As with so many recent productions of operas of all periods, the major characters are dressed in the most un-colorful modern garb—Theseus gets a white suit, Phaedre a plain black dress. The immortals are given full scale Baroque costumes that relieve the visual boredom. And putting the mortals in a two-story cutaway 1950s house (actually using the structure of the refrigerator minus the orange juice, sausages and eggs) simply takes away from whatever grandeur is left to them thanks to Kent’s “concept.”
In one scene, the chorus is decked out in bright red Baroque-style hunting outfits. In several others, they are dressed in the dullest possible dark outfits. And of course, just about everybody has to be barefoot.
Come on. If he thinks his audience will not accept Baroque opera done in the Baroque staging, why does he take on the job? There are scenes from other productions on You Tube done in the costumes of Rameau’s time. They are a pleasure to watch.
I cannot fault the singers, who have little say about the physical production: Ed Lyon (Hippolyte), Christine Karg (Aricie), Sarah Connolly ( Phaedra), Stephane Degout (Theseus), and the imposing Francois Lis (Pluton, Jupiter, and Neptune). The smaller roles are quite good. However, the too-contemporary choreography, so common in productions from this period, jars completely with the music.
This, then, is one of these DVDs that are best heard and not seen, unless one appreciates these childish directorial games. Perhaps if a director who trusts the work he is assigned to direct would bring the 21st century back to Rameau’s time, then I would be willing to watch and review it for its artistic merits.
Oh yes, Opus Arte still cannot find it worthwhile to give the track listings in the program notes.