Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie

Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie
Ensemble OrQuesta
Grimborn Opera Festival
Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London
13 August 2019

As the name of suggests, Grimeborn is not Glyndebourne. Its mid-summer season is based at the Arcola Theatre, a converted textile factory in Dalston, East London, and focuses on new operas and experimental productions of more established repertoire. The cramped space forces directors, singers and instrumentalists to rethink opera presentation. There is only space for very few instrumentalists in a tiny gallery which is only accessible by ladder. The singers are performing within a few feet of the audience, which sits on three sides of the small central stage area, creating directorial issues in how the singers relate to the audience. It is about as far as you can get from the ideal space to perform French Baroque opera, with its enormous casts of singers and dancers, large orchestral forces and elaborate stage settings, but that is exactly what Ensemble OrQuesta are doing in their production of Rameau’s tragédie en musiqueHippolyte et Aricie. 

Rameau came to opera composition late, 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 is the first known description of a piece of music as being 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. Not surprisingly, Ensemble OrQuesta’s Grimborn showing was a much-shortened affair (lasting nearly two hours), 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.

It is not an easy work to stage, or for audiences to follow, with its convoluted mythological plot of Gods and humans. Director Marcio da Silva omitted the prologue, which would have given us the chance to work out who Diana. L’Amour and Jupiter were, and Diana’s promise to protect Hippolyte and Aricie. He also changed the order of Act 1 and 2, starting in the Underworld without the earthly backstory of Act 1 and its introduction to the main characters of the opera. They are Thésée, King of Athens, his wife Phèdre, and his (but not Phèdre’s) son Hippolyte. Hippolyte loves Aricie, but she is the daughter of Thesée’s enemy. The relationship between these two couples forms the main plotline but is complicated by the fact that Phèdre has taken a fancy to her stepson, Hippolyte. In the original Act 1, Phèdre hears that Thésée has gone to the Underworld and is probably dead., enabling Phèdre to offer Hippolyte the crown of Athens, and herself. Although starting in Act 2 made for a dramatic opening, it is a bit of a red-herring as far as the main plot was concerned, introduced ideas and Gods that are not really relevant to the rest of the piece.

Ensemble OrQuesta arranges opera academies, where singers sign up for training courses that culminate in a public performance. A list of four such academies was advertised on the back of the programme, with tuition fees ranging from £500 to £750. I am not sure if any of the singers in the production were part of an academy, but the standard of singing and acting suggested that some were relatively inexperienced in the craft. But the good ones were very good, notably the director Marcio da Silva who stole the opening Act as a powerful Thésée in the Underworld. Aricie was the very impressive Juliet Petrus, the clarity and stability of her voice being just the thing for negotiating the complex French ornaments. Kieran White was Hippolyte, a role intended for the very French haute contra voice which he copes with well. Alexandra Bork was a powerful Phèdre. Diane and L’Amour were Helen May and Katherine MacRae (not Kathleen Nic Dhiarmida, as previously stated), both impressive.

The instrumentalists had a rough time of it, jammed into a tiny gallery and trying to replicate the sound of a large Baroque orchestra. There were pairs of violins and violas, cello, archlute, guitar and harpsichord, the busiest being harpsichordist Seb Gillot, cellist Erlend Vestby and Cédric Meyer, archlute. Kieran Staub conducted, pinned up against a steel column with his back to the singers and, I assume, a camera link to a screen as the timing seemed pretty accurate. Intonation wasn’t always of the finest, but I was impressed with the attempt to produce the sound of the two musettes that feature strongly in Rameau’s score. 

Given the implications of the space, this was an impressive version of a complex work which played to a capacity audience. A simple staging was inevitable, and effective use was made of the tiny performing area. For some reason, all the singers were barefooted, said feet very quickly turning into various shades of black, all too visible when they were sprawled on the floor, as many of them were in the various tableaux that took the places of the intended dances.