Hipermestra, Glyndebourne, May 2017

Fifty brides for fifty brothers, each to be murdered by his wife on their wedding night, is a story that emerges from Greek mythology — a rich source of material for the first opera composers, including Monteverdi’s student Cavalli who composed this work.

All images GFO/ Tristram Kenton

Hipermestra is based on the myth of Danaus (Danao) and his twin brother Aegyptus (Egitto), whose fifty sons were commanded to wed the fifty nieces. Fearing annihilation, Danaus tells his daughters to murder their husbands on the wedding night, but Hypermnestra disobeys. She loves her husband Lynceus (Linceo), who later takes revenge for the death of his brothers by killing Danaus, fulfilling an oracle that inspired Danaus with his original fear.

Hipermestra and Elisa

The performance starts in the Glyndebourne gardens where we glimpse a bride or two strolling through the grounds with their husbands to be. In the auditorium itself the stage extends to the front of the stalls, with a stepped decline to an area for ten musicians in costume, including conductor William Christie at the harpsichord. The link between stage and pit allows the occasional transfer of musicians to stage, and vice versa, and in Act III Hipermestra’s nurse Berenice (a delightfully camp and bearded Mark Wilde) even flirts with William Christie and then an audience member in the front row. It’s that sort of production in the later stages, after the heroine has thrown herself off a tower, only to be saved by a giant, colourful deus ex machina, but blink and you miss it.

Hipermestra, Linceo, Elisa, Arbante

Graham Vick’s production, with Stuart Nunn’s Islamic-inspired designs and excellent lighting by Giuseppe di lorio, gives a modern take on this mythical story, where Act III shows the devastation of Argos in Arabia or some other oil producing country. This allows the usual AK47s, and even an RPG, along with a military truck that burns dramatically towards the end of Act II where the pace quickens after more than two hours of performance. Act III, in the second half, zips by relatively swiftly though a brief interval during the moral dilemmas of the lengthy first half might have been welcome.

End of Act II

This stage drama, with recitatives and arias linked by its small band of musicians from the OAE on original instruments, was blessed with terrific singing. In the title role, Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth delivered strength, purity and balance, with Ana Quintans singing beautifully as her confidante Elisa. Arbante, whose rejection by Hipermestra causes him to lie to Linceo about her faithlessness, was strongly sung by Benjamin Hulett, and counter-tenor Raffaele Pe made a bold Linceo. His murder of the estimable Danao, sung with great warmth and emotion by Renato Dolcini, plunged the stage into stygian darkness at the end of Act II, and the entire cast was universally excellent.

The revival of seventeenth century Venetian opera, originally performed to paying audiences in the world’s first opera house — and this opening to the Glyndebourne season is Hipermestra’s UK premiere — is greatly enhanced by surtitles that allow an attentive audience to understand the nuances of the text.

Performances continue on various dates until July 8 — details click here.

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