Glyndebourne’s Goddess Battles Cupid, Lenny Henry Shines

Diana, goddess of chastity, lives in the icebox of a fridge. She’s dwarfed by huge cellophane-wrapped sausages and giant broccoli spears. It’s not what Rameau had in mind for his 1733 opera “Hyppolite et Aricie.”

Does it matter? Not a jot. French baroque opera thrived on stage marvels, and director Jonathan Kent creates plenty of witty wonders in his new production at Glyndebourne, U.K.

Rameau’s opera tells the story of Phaedra (Sarah Connolly), who is tortured by incestuous desires for her stepson Hyppolitus (Ed Lyon). When she hears that her husband is dead, she flings herself at the horrified lad, who remains faithful to his Aricia.

It’s tragic stuff. So why the huge jokey icebox?

The opera opens with an amusing duet between Diana and Cupid, who make rival claims for the powers of self-control and self-indulgence: the reference to the main plot is obvious. The deities pop up again at regular intervals, sometimes injecting a note of comedy.

The director presents Diana (Katherine Watson) as a loveless and icy character, hence the visual white-goods metaphor. Cupid (Ana Quintans) pops out of an egg in the fridge door, and is shown to be a rebellious little chick with an Elvis-type quiff. It’s clever and cute.

Designer Paul Brown keeps ringing the changes. One moment the fridge is where Diana the huntress hangs her slain stags, the next it’s Phaedra’s suburban home. Gods fly across the stage on wires.

Cold Metaphor

For all the visual wit, the Diana-equals-cold metaphor is over-bludgeoned, and the lack of nuance feels like preaching. Are self-control and moderation -- the things that Diana represents in the opera -- really as terrible as Kent suggests?

No quibbles on the singing. Sarah Connolly combines a luscious voice and volcanic stage presence as Phaedra, and her climactic outpouring of despair in Act 4 is scalp-prickling. Ed Lyon and Christiane Karg (Aricia) make a delightful pair of lovers, and Stephane Degout is a sympathetic Theseus.

Conductor William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment respond with panache to the variety of Rameau’s score, which includes a storm, a hunting chorus, a flood, and plenty of dances. Rating: ****.

Wilson’s ‘Fences’

August Wilson’s 1987 play “Fences” comes to London’s West End in a production directed by Paulette Randall.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1957, it centers on black garbageman Troy (Lenny Henry), his wife Rose (Tanya Moodie), and his two sons Lyons (Peter Bankole) and Cory (Ashley Zhangazha). The former is a feckless musician, the latter a wannabe baseball star.

It’s an oddly structured piece. The characters sit on the veranda, uneventfully chew the cud for long stretches, and then flare into bursts of melodrama. Adultery, madness, patricide, racism, illegitimacy -- whoosh! Then back to the cud chewing.

The play succeeds through Wilson’s ear for the lively rhythms of blue-collar speech, and in the central portrait of a flawed, complex and often funny character.

Henry gets the laughs and the pathos, and gives a performance full of variety. It keeps you involved, even when the drama hits yet another longueur. Rating: ***.

“Hippolyte et Aricie” is in repertoire at Glyndebourne. or +44-1273-813813. The production will be screened in cinemas on July 25.

“Fences” is at the Duchess Theatre, London. +44-844-412-4659.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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