Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie
Ensemble OrQuesta, Marcio da Silva
Music at Woodhouse: Baroque Opera Acadmey
Woodhouse Copse, Holmbury St. Mary, Surrey. 1 July 2017
Music at Woodhouse is based at Woodhouse Copse, an attractive 1926 Arts & Crafts style cottage orné and garden designed by Oliver Hill, a follower of Lutyens, with planting planned by Gertrude Jekyll. A former indoor swimming pool has been converted into a small concert room, and there is also a larger lakeside amphitheatre and stage. As well as small-scale professional productions, it has also recently started week-long academies for young opera singers, culminating in public performances. When they invited me to review Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie , I was warned that ‘it isn’t Glyndebourne’, but even Glyndebourne singers have to start somewhere and this seemed a pretty attractive venue for a week of music making and learning. Ten singers were accepted onto the academy, led by music direct Marco de Silva and harpsichordist Stephanie Gurga. Three of the roles had dual casting on the Saturday and Sunday performances.
Rameau was a latecomer to opera composition, writing Hippolyte et Aricie, his first, when he was nearly 50. It was first performed at Paris’s Académie Royale de Musique in 1733 to a very mixed reception. It attracted the first known description of a piece if music as being “du barocque” (Baroque), although this was intended as an insult, based on its complexity, disregard for musical conventions of the time, excessive ornamentation, and the use of dissonances and colourful orchestrations. It set the pattern for the post-Lully style of French opera.
Those familiar with Rameau’s colourful orchestrations, with his distinctive sound of flutes, recorders, and bassoons, would have been surprised to find a tiny orchestra of just five string players, but that was a perfectly adequate size for the space, although the virtuosity and complexity of the music meant that there was no place to hide for the instrumentalists. The staging and costumes were, of necessity, simple, and were the better for that, although the use of a ladder, rather precariously hooked up to a narrow hole in a balcony, was perhaps rather too ambitious, resulting in a barely concealed scream from the hard-working assistant stage director, Vivi Baylis. Good use was made of the available space, with the audience seating collegiate style facing into a central corridor. A TV screen displayed translations, although these were not always visible to all the audience. Not surprisingly, this was a much shortened affair (lasting just over two hours, plus a picnic interval), omitting the Prologue but preserving elements of all five acts together with some of the dance music, albeit with a series of tableaux rather than actual dancing.
French Baroque vocal and instrumental musical style is a complex one to learn. It is full of rules that need to be obeyed, but also interpreted in a free and natural manner, so that they are almost unnoticeable. It is a style than many musicians come to later in their training, so it was admirable that these young singers took the plunge, and in such a public way. One of the key aspect in bringing clarity to the musical line and distinctive French ornaments is to rein in vibrato. Unfortunately, in so much vocal training, young singers are pushed to develop big operatic voices where vibrato becomes a difficult to control by-product. And it take a long time for them to gain the experience to learn how to control that vibrato. One or two singers in this production had already developed a degree of vibrato that is really not appropriate for any ‘early music’, and certainly not for French Baroque where clarity of musical line is paramount.
That said, there was some impressive singing, notably from Helen May (Diane) and Ashley Adams (Aricie), both demonstrating excellent fluidity in their ornaments, and both having the rare ability to sing a proper trill; Jolyon Loy as an imposing Thésée, Hugh Benson as Hippolyte, demonstrating an attractive French-style haute contre voice, but in need of more experience at acting without relying on facial expressions alone; and from Marcio da Silva, who took time out from conducting to play Tisiphone. The full cast and production list can be seen here.