Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie

Author: 
Lionel Salter
Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie

Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie

  • Hippolyte et Aricie

If I were pressed to nominate the greatest single acts in baroque opera, high on the list would be Act 2 of Hippolyte et Aricie, the first tragedie en musique of a 50-year-old musical theorist who had little confidence in his abilities beyond the harpsichord pieces and the few cantatas he had hitherto composed. But this act, set in the Underworld, exerts a relentless dramatic grip from its opening, with Theseus grappling with one of the Furies, to the final trio by the Fates, rejected as impracticable at the time and still astonishing today by the boldness of its enharmonic modulations. The present Theseus (who took the role of three gods on the Minkowski issue) is a resonant, virile bass, infinitely better on his low notes than his counterpart for Minkowski, and worthy to stand comparison with Shirley-Quirk’s memorable performance in Anthony Lewis’s 30-year-old recording, even if slightly on the hefty side. There is an appropriately black-voiced Pluto in Nathan Berg (who also plays Jupiter and Neptune), a firm-voiced, full-blooded chorus, and an effective Mercury; but the singer of the role of Tisiphone rather over-characterizes by adopting too nasal a tone to depict the Fury. Unlike Minkowski, who was tempted by the 1757 revision of the start of Act 2, with its re-orchestration and baritone Tisiphone, William Christie adheres throughout to Rameau’s 1733 original, in so doing opening up some passages previously omitted. He uses an orchestra with more string weight than his predecessor, and they play with rather greater security both of ensemble and intonation, and with splendidly crisp rhythms.
Despite the opera’s title, the main protagonists are Theseus and his queen Phaedra, whose guilty passion for his son Hippolytus precipitates the tragedy (even though there is a happy ending for the eponymous pair). In all three recordings Phaedra is strongly cast, none more so than in the present case, with Lorraine Hunt even more passionate than Dame Janet Baker was on the Decca recording, and particularly impressive in the superb aria “Cruelle mere des amours” which begins Act 3, into which Rameau poured all his artifices of affecting suspensions and harmonies. Throughout the opera, indeed, one is also struck alike by the profusion of invention, the unobtrusive contrapuntal skill, the charm and colour of the instrumentation and the freedom allotted to the orchestra. The work’s final scene, for example, set in a woodland, is filled with a truly enchanting atmosphere, ending, after the customary chaconne, with “Rossignols amoureux” (delightfully sung by Patricia Petibon). Anna-Maria Panzarella makes an appealingly youthful Aricia (to whom Rameau allocates surprisingly little on her own), and Mark Padmore is easily the best Hippolytus of the three recordings, making the most of his despairing Act 4 aria “Ah, faut-il, en ce jour, perdre tout ce que j’aime?”. Pains have been taken with the whole cast over the expressive delivery of words and their timing and over neatness of ornamentation; and production values such as the proper perspective for the entry of the crowd rejoicing at Theseus’s return have been well considered.
All told, this is one of William Christie’s best achievements, an obvious labour of love for a masterpiece which, he confesses, has entranced him for 30 years.'

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