Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne, July 2013

This is the third Rameau opera I have seen in as many years, and I understand the problem. Rameau’s delightful music — played here on original instruments by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the excellent baton of William Christie — is full of wonderful dance rhythms. The question is what to do with them all.

The cold world of Diana, all images © Bill Cooper

The cold world of Diana, all images © Bill Cooper

Director Jonathan Kent has solved this problem by bringing in eight professional dancers (four male, four female) who interweave with the chorus in some fine choreography by Ashley Page. There is even an oddly original pas-de-deux that appears early on, and then in similar form towards the end. This is French grand opera, so one expects dance plus elaborate sets and costumes, and Kent has provided this, with colourful and eclectic designs by Paul Brown well lit by Mark Henderson.

The turning point

Phaedra and Hippolytus — the turning point

The essence of the story, in the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripedes, is a conflict between two goddesses, Artemis and Aphrodite. Hippolytus is a faithful follower of Artemis, betrayed by Aphrodite in the form of his step-mother Phaedra, who nurtures a mad passion for him. His father Theseus believes her posthumous and fanciful claim that Hippolytus tried to rape her, but the son remains silent, and Theseus banishes him, calling on his father Poseidon for revenge. As Hippolytus leaves the kingdom a bull roars out of the sea and frightens the horses, which dash the chariot onto the rocks killing the young man, whose name incidentally means freer of horses.

Creatures of Hades

Creatures of Hades

This opera is based on Racine’s tragedy Phèdre on the same subject, with Artemis, Aphrodite and Poseidon replaced by their Roman counterparts Diana, Cupid and Neptune. Hippolytus and Aricia live in Diana’s realm, where they adore one another, and Cupid is a dangerous imposter. You will read reviews saying it all starts in a refrigerator, which sounds ridiculous, but what Jonathan Kent is doing here is to juxtapose the cool world of Diana, represented in white, with the immensely colourful world of Cupid, who hatches out of an egg in the fridge. If you can accept that and be relaxed about gods descending from the heavens, then the whole thing works in the context of a dichotomy between two worlds, with extraordinary Alice-in-Wonderland-like creatures inhabiting Hades and dancing to music that was extremely avant garde for its time.

Mixture of worlds

Mixture of worlds

Rameau himself was the author of famous treatises on musical theory, who came to opera late. His first — this one — was performed less than a week after his fiftieth birthday, and the performers in this production sang it beautifully. Their French diction, particularly among the men, was very good, with Ed Lyon and Stéphane Degout giving very fine performances of Hippolytus and Theseus, and François Lis a strong portrayal of Pluto, as well as singing Jupiter and Neptune. Christiane Karg gave us a beautifully nuanced performance of Aricia, and Sarah Connolly was a convincing and beautifully sung Pheadra. Ana Quintans was a terrific Cupid, and Katherine Watson gave a well sung performance of Diana, replacing Stephanie D’Oustrac.

Lovers reunited by Diana

Love reunited by Diana

In producing a Rameau opera, with its strong rhythms and varied scenes and locations, you can go for a reduced set that works well throughout, as the ENO did for Castor and Pollux, or you need to go the whole hog with multiple sets, and good choreography that suits the composer’s musical invention. That is what Glyndebourne has done here, and this vivid new Jonathan Kent production is a wonderful summer treat.

Performances continue until August 18, with a change of conductor to Jonathan Cohen from August 4 — for details click here.

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