Glyndebourne 2013: Hippolyte et Aricie

Be sure to eat them sausages by the expiry date.
Be sure to eat them sausages by the expiry date.

Glyndebourne’s production of Rameau’s breathtaking Hippolyte et Aricie was streamed live last night. It was my first experience of French Baroque opera and contrary to my expectations, it turned out to be a gripping affair.

Surprising really, because this was a lengthy affair. A four hour marathon with little present-day to latch on to and a good deal of what at times felt like near-surrealism on stage. The Prologue set in the chilly interior of a giant fridge was amusing (who knew that giant broccoli could be something to giggle at), the giant lettuce leaf and tube of tomato puree things to peer at and wonder ‘what’s the symbolism there?’. But from that point up until the moment I twigged where the scene in hell was set (at the back of the same fridge but outside it – the bit where it gets hot, geddit?), I struggled between moments of awe and intense irritation. Was the extravagant, playful stage design a masterstroke or something incredibly annoying?

Ed Lyon as Hippolytus: A Dish
Ed Lyon as Hippolytus: Dishy

This stems from me not knowing the work enough (or indeed, at all). The experience of watching new opera afresh can sometimes feel like clinging on for dear life, making the seemingly obscure visual cues either smugly self-important or a mental challenge not worth rising to. So it was with Hippolyte et Aricie … to begin with. The fridge interior seemed fun, the second act cold interior with the moose hanging from the ceiling a little darker (and my stomach turned when they drained the animals of blood – maybe that was the point).

But what sustained my interest was something far more fundamental. First and foremost was Rameau’s music played with vim and vigour by the hard-working Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Meditative in places, his often adventurous harmonies were added to by painfully expressive melodic lines which turned the emotional dial way past maximum. Gripping too were performances from Sarah Connelly (Phaedra), Francois Lis (Pluto) who must have been in make-up for hours and Dish-Of-The-Evening Ed Lyon (Hippolytus). Stage presence and voice combined carried the novice through the uncharted territories of Rameau’s ravishing score and the sometimes difficult to understand stage design.

Ta-da!
Ta-da!

Things moved on a pace too. At the start the prospect of two hours for the first half seemed daunting. And yet, a natural pause in proceedings didn’t present itself until twenty minutes before the end of the first half. That says something about what was going on on screen, whether or not I was familiar with the work. The only moment I’d question is the entrance of the dancing sailors. Yes, they’re meant to be distracting but there were moments when they were closer to Carry On than I personally would have liked.

What used to be unusual is now the norm, perhaps even expected. The event streamed live online and into cinemas is now available via the Guardian and Glyndebourne’s websites. It demands repeat viewings if you have time to spare.

Watch Glyndebourne’s production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie here.

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