Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

ONP Garnier, Friday June 22 2012

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Production: Ivan Alexandre. Sets: Antoine Fontaine. Costumes: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz . Lighting: Hervé Gary. Dance: Natalie Van Parys. Phèdre: Sarah Connolly. Aricie: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Diane: Andrea Hill. L’Amour/Une Prêtresse/Une Matelote: Jaël Azzaretti. Oenone: Salomé Haller. Tisiphone: Marc Mauillon. La Grande Prêtresse de Diane/Une Chasseresse/Une Prêtresse: Aurélia Legay. Hippolyte: Topi Lehtipuu. Thésée: Stéphane Degout. Pluton/Jupiter: François Lis. Arcas/Deuxième Parque: Aimery Lefèvre. Un Suivant/Mercure: Manuel Nuñez Camelino. Neptune/Troisième Parque: Jérôme Varnier. Orchestra and chorus of the Concert d’Astrée.

Facebook is an odd phenomenon. You start because one or two young friends – real friends you have actually met, know and love - tell you you should join. Then gradually people you don’t know from Adam start asking to be your “friend” and, as you don’t want to be unpleasant, you say yes… So you end up surrounded (virtually of course) by a motley bunch of people you’d never mix with in real life: people who believe in God, Satan, reincarnation, tarot cards and scented candles, “hurt” and “healing”, people who call cats “kittehs” (and in France would no doubt call mothers “mamans”), who send each other hugs and positive thoughts, think art is about beauty, papermakers destroy rainforests but wooden houses (and toys) are ecological, a manufactured molecule must automatically harm you while its identical twin, found under a toadstool, will do you good, nature is nice though she kills us all without mercy and without exception, driving their SUV to a farmers’ market will save the planet, shopping at mom and pop stores will somehow sustain the economy and school the masses, and organic arugula will feed mankind*… And, oddest of all, if ever you call into question their mad ideas or fail to “like” their posts, these folk who meant nothing to you turn on you as if you’d asked them in, not vice versa. So the time soon comes for “unfriending”**.

In my own case, I’ve somehow ended up surrounded by people for whom the arts more or less ended, or at any rate went into steep decline, at the time of the French revolution – yet who, unaccountably, while adoring Vivaldi, don’t care a fig for Rameau. This leads me to suspect that what they actually like about the 18th century is surface prettiness or “elegance”, Watteau-esque fantasies and able but senseless note-spinning, but we won’t go into that here: as I said, you don’t want to be unpleasant.

When it comes out on Blu-Ray – as it no doubt will: there were cameras in every nook and cranny last night as the thing went out live on Mezzo - they will love at least the look of this production of Hippolyte et Aricie. It’s conceived as a dreamy (French intellectuals can't resist the word "onirique") vision through dusty, rose-tinted glasses, or better still, a rose-tinted lorgnette, of an 18th-century spectacle, all old rose, cream and eau-de-Nil and looking very much like a faded tapestry or print - as if the costumes were cut from period cloth found, drained of its colours over the last 250 years, in a sun-kissed attic in Aix-en-Provence. The sets (forest glades, with or without fountains, pillared halls with Corinthian capitals and coffered ceilings, the curved stone vaults of Hades with the Parques hanging head-down on ropes, Thésée’s palace on the shore…) are all painted canvases sliding in and out and up and down. The strictly period costumes (with the men’s coat-tails stretched into stiff, conical skirts and the women in “lampshade” gowns) are all, as I said, powdery shades of pastel. There’s thick, white grease paint, there are rosy cheeks and powdered wigs, the gestures are “authentic”, goddesses descend on juddering platforms (no wonder Diane got off to a troubled start: she must have been terrified on her trembling seat, 20 feet up in the air) and everything is delicately lit in pale gold-dust light.

I bumped into a couple I know as we were let out for half-time. “What do you think of the production?” asked the husband. “The production? It’s…” I paused to find the right word. “Boring”, said the wife. “Boring but chic”. Actually, it wasn’t altogether boring, and act 4, with the hunting scene and the marvellous, saw-toothed monster’s maw emerging from complicated business with giant canvases at the rear (“Quel bruit ! Quels vents ! Quelle montagne humide !”) and Neptune coiffed with - faded, of course - turquoise ostrich feathers, worked very well indeed. But there were definitely times when, as one critic wrote, “l’ennui guettait”, i.e. boredom lay in wait, and all this gilded sepia came very close to a kind of dusty brown soup.

The main problem, as usual with these reconstitutions, is that the heavy make-up, elaborate costumes and stiff poses are passion-killers. It’s all very well, in the prologue, for the ladies of the chorus to look like china dolls; but once the drama gets going – and in Rameau it does: there’s genuine lyric tragedy between the superb divertissements – it’s no help at all having your heroes look like 18th century automata. It ends up being a waste of talent: however good the singers are, feelings don’t pierce through.

The star of this show was Stéphane Degout, whose singing throughout was magnificent – and Rameau gave Thésée some magnificent stuff to sing. How much better it would have been if he’d had less clownish makeup, no stiff tutu over his silk breeches, fewer layers of silks and brocades and more flexible movements. He was followed fairly closely by Anne-Catherine Gillet, the next-most-natural Rameau voice, sweet and silvery, in the cast, and Jaël Azzaretti, who very nearly took over to steal the show with her final numbers.

Topi Lehtipuu, lanky and stiff as a statue throughout, poor guy, seemed ill at ease in the part, to my surprise; and Sarah Connolly was, to me, a let-down. I’d expected a more powerful performance, fine though her singing was. Garnier isn’t, after all, a huge theatre like the Bastille. Perhaps both were under the weather.

I know Emmanuelle Haïm has pals here, and the stick she comes in for in the press seems unkind and might, I think, be down to plain misogyny. But however much she dances and darts about – “Woody Woodpecker” one person I know calls her - it seems to have little effect on her orchestra. There isn't the drive, the energy of Minkowski, the spring of Rousset or Christie’s fleetness of foot. A word I’ve settled on in the past is “humdrum”: in the end, all the dancing and darting leads to very little actual variety or contrast – surely not right in Rameau? There were also some dodgy moments last night between the stage and the pit, and the percussionist seemed to live in a world of his own.

This evening was, then, “mi figue, mi raisin”, as the French say, i.e. mitigated. I’d have preferred a production that let the cast – a good one, after all: just read the names – express themselves more freely. No doubt the recording will smooth over the flaws and my 18th-century-obsessed Facebook “friends” will leap at it, even if it isn't Vivaldi.

*I could easily add to this list of weird and not-so-wonderful beliefs and behaviours. People who call ice cream "gelato" for example.
** I'm getting good at unfriending. Recently some friend of friends wanted to befriend me, so I accepted, and within seconds he was insulting me for not praising his photos. It was a very brief friendship indeed. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had no chance.

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