“Hippolyte et Aricie” was the first musical work to be dubbed “baroque” by contemporary critics. They didn’t mean it as a compliment.
The production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1733 opera at the Palais Garnier in Paris, which comes from Toulouse, is visually stunning, though vocally not up to snuff.
Voltaire found the opera, Rameau’s first, boring. Others deplored its overly complex style and compared it unfavorably with Lully’s dignified simplicity.
The dispute between “Lullistes” and “Rameauneurs” -- a pun: ramoneurs are chimney sweeps -- was one of the 18th century’s great musical quarrels.
In the 19th century, the “tragedies en musique” by both Lully and Rameau disappeared from the repertory. It has only been in the past few decades that William Christie, John Eliot Gardiner and other champions of the period-instrument school put them back on the map.
The basis of “Hippolyte et Aricie” is the most famous of French classical tragedies, Racine’s “Phedre.”
Phaedra lusts after her stepson Hippolytus. At the false news that her husband Theseus is dead she confesses her passion. Hippolytus, who’s in love with Aricia, brusquely rejects her.
When Theseus unexpectedly returns, Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of having attempted to rape her. Theseus has his son killed, and a remorseful Phaedra poisons herself.
What the audience at the premiere of Rameau’s opera expected was more than just a musical rehash of Racine’s play. They wanted a show with dances, pomp and special effects. Rameau obliged and also came up with another novelty -- a happy ending.
Theseus, therefore, isn’t just absent: We follow him into the Underworld where he pleads for a friend before Pluto and his infernal court.
Other gods, too, take sides in the erotic tug-of-war: Cupid argues for free love, Neptune prevents Theseus from killing himself, and Diana rescues Hippolytus from the belly of a sea monster that has swallowed him.
Ivan Alexandre, the director, and Antoine Fontaine, the set designer, have magnificently risen to the challenge.
Not only have they resisted the temptation to update the story and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. They’ve enthusiastically jumped at the chance to let Baroque theater magic shine in its full glory.
Painted clouds majestically sail through the sky, gods descend from Heaven or rise from Hell, and the painted sea disgorges a wonderfully weird monster.
It’s great fun, with just the right pinch of ironic nostalgia.
The elaborate costumes (Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz) could have stepped out of a canvas by Watteau or Gainsborough.
The opera has longueurs. Half of the endless dances that slow down the action could easily be cut.
The real problem is the voices. The period-instrument world has attracted an army of singing lightweights who never would have dared to dream of a stage career before.
Most of the gods produce decidedly ungodly noises. The humans are better. By far the most impressive is Stephane Degout: His Thesee is powerfully declaimed and beautifully sung.
Sarah Connolly’s Phedre, though strongly characterized, has a hint of shrillness. Topi Lehtipuu and Anne-Catherine Gillet in the title roles are bland.
Emmanuelle Haim conducts her “historically informed” band, the Concert d’Astree, with vigor.
“Hippolyte et Aricie” is in repertory through July 9. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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