Wednesday 10 July 2013

Rameau and other revelations

I'd never have believed until Sunday that I could be so intoxicated with both the genius of Rameau and a production by Jonathan Kent, a director I'd always had down as a magpie plundering the ideas of others. But Glyndebourne worked its special magic and there we were, treading on air after five crammed-to-bursting acts. Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau's first tragédie lyrique composed in 1733 when he was 50 years old, is a masterpiece, no doubt about it.

This is, above all, what you get when a fine team of singers and players - the magnificent, muscled Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - works for over six weeks with a man who knows his Rameau inside out. As William Christie unquestionably does. I hear hair-raising tales about him from performers, but he gets the results, above all in the sometimes ferocious projection of that phenomenal string writing which puts Rameau in the top league of orchestration, the true ancestor of Berlioz and Ravel.

The composer brings on two tremendous frissons toward the respective ends of his third and fourth acts: the extraordinary effect of rushing waters as Theseus, believing himself wronged by his son Hippolytus rather than his wife Phaedra, invokes father Neptune (François Lis and Stéphane Degout pictured below as father and son) to punish the adulterer; and the grave divisions after the curse becomes a reality, Phaedra's exit to suicide.

Melodically, there are more pleasures than I'd have thought possible. Rameau is not all declamation, like Lully - who of course also has his exceptions - and among the loveliest set pieces are Phaedra's two arias of torment, the idyll of Aricia- drafted in as pallid contrast to the bad stepmother - having rediscovered her Hippolytus,  a nightingale number and, most memorable of all, a luminous Musette for chorus and orchestra (Glyndebourne Chorus, it should go without saying, superlative throughout).

To say that all these were well performed is an understatement. Style came hand in glove with beauty of tone from everyone involved, Sarah Connolly's Phaedra matched every inch by soprano Christiane Karg as Aricia. Ed Lyon (pictured with her above in the wonderful woodland scene),  travelling down on the train in a muscle-freeing vest, is not quite the hunk vocally, but cut the mustard; even more spirited tenor contributions came from Matthias Vidal in the first act and Loic Felix in the second.

And how some of us love it that Rameau has no cause for countertenors here, but favours the virile male voice, in which respect we could not have asked for more from Degout's tormented Theseus and Lis as three gods in one person (Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune).

The drama is as piled high with incident as the score, though we got the nub of the Phaedra-Hippolytus-Theseus tangle in a third act which Kent has been careful to locate downstage, making it a domestic drama in a clinical modern home.

Each act deserves a different style, which is where the genius of designer Paul Brown comes in so useful. The joky fridge-machinations of ice goddess Diana versus furry Cupid were fine given that the Prologues of tragédies lyriques tend to be a little bit boring and need as much livening-up as they can get.

In Act One, Diana's votaries frolic in white, blithely cut stag throats and roll around in blood; Connolly's Phaedra appears among them in striking red, while the lovers keep their purity costume-wise throughout.

The second act in Hades is an odd 'un, purely there for infernal spectacle - especially since this is our first meeting with Theseus. Pluto lives at the back of the fridge with sundry flies and spiders, cue for the more outlandish of Ashley Page's dances (which are pretty safe for the most part, more's the pity).

Great music only accumulates from the third act onwards, though. The pink-lit sailor ballet, so at odds with the domestic crisis, kept its queasiness, I thought, and the forest scene matched the 21st and 18th centuries with garish aplomb. Kent also, quite uncharacteristically, tied it all together with a finale in a mortuary (more iceboxes, of course). I didn't entirely buy the undermining of the happy end - and what's with the Fura dels Baus style old man's head on the curtain: old Theseus looking back? - but there was nothing to deflate our helium-filled delight. Another afternoon/evening of Glyndebourne perfection.

Unfortunately I can't detain you with any more shots of another summer idyll by the lake, because my laptop's gone into rehab and there are many things I can't do on the machine Juliette has so kindly loaned me. There's just time to recap on all the other new or live-new hearings I've been stunned by recently. Report on Britten's startlingly profound, almost Wagnerian Noye's Fludde in heavenly Tewkesbury Cathedral is now up on The Arts Desk, with glimpses of sundry other Cheltenham delights (including Poulenc two-piano stunners heard in concert for the first time). Here's a further flavour of my new/old hero James Mayhew's design for the ark with its dove-prow, photo by Malcolm Pollock.

On the listening front, I've had too few words (30 a disc on a BBC Music Mag 'In Brief' roundup) to wax lyrical about the sheer lacy beauty of a symphony and Shakespeare 'preludes' by that lovely romantic Joachim Raff; Neeme Järvi and the Suisse Romande Orchestra do it all proud.

Who says the Second Symphony doesn't have tunes? It starts with middle-European bucolics almost on a par with the beginning of Dvorak's Sixth, and its scherzo has wondrous woodwind writing. Best of all, perhaps, is the Ariel music in the Tempest tone-poem, though all four Shakespeare settings have their sensitivities.

It was serendipity that just after I'd been banner-headlining my hope of hearing the comic opera The Sacred Goose by Hans Gál (pictured above) following what Michael Haas had written about it in Forbidden Music, along came a recording of the Second Symphony. It's part of a cycle pairing the Austrian's four symphonies with Schumann's and comes from Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan, which sounds like such a fine orchestra in the exemplary Avie recording.

The Second ought to be a profoundly tragic work; when he composed it in 1942, Gál was an exile in England. In that year, his mother died, his sister and aunt escaped Auschwitz only by taking their own lives and his youngest son committed suicide. Instead of darkness, though, the Second is more remarkable for the radiance and rigour of its laments. I find it incredible that it should end so peacefully. There's a comparison here with Martinů's Third, a greater work no doubt; and yet Gál's nostalgic style is so obviously the man, and a good man at that. Time now to investigate the other three symphonies.

All Glyndebourne production images by Bill Cooper


Susan Scheid said...

The production looks to have been fascinating—and certainly unusual! It seems so over-the-top that it surely risked being a huge failure, making its success all the more remarkable.

Laptop in rehab, eh? That’s a pain. We are so tied to this equipment, to lose access begins to be like losing air or water . . .

Despite that handicap, you’ve brought us a wonderful eyewitness report of a glorious day, and then some. I do hope I get to Glyndebourne someday. The rehearsal time alone (notwithstanding the musicians’ hair-raising tales in this instance) has got to increase hugely the chances of seeing and hearing superior productions.

David said...

Yes - I was expecting an almighty mess. But in the end it fitted with Rameau's variousness, his sense of le merveilleux.

Thanks for your sympathy re the laptop. Very frustrating that I can't download pics, which limits me here to pieces dependent on outside photosources for the time being. Well, we must learn to live without. Adaptability is all.

Perhaps you and the edu-mate can join us at Gbne next year - it's now no secret that Richard Jones is directing Der Rosenkavalier with new MD Robin Ticciati conducting. I have my doubts about the soprano set down to sing the Marschallin, Kate Royal. But a year is a long time in opera.

Susan Scheid said...

We would love to join you. The question will be whether Rosenkav is at a time when the Edu-mate is finished with school, which means sometime in July. Keep us posted, will you? (PS: the Prokofiev Violin Sonata is extraordinary. Thank you so much. I'll comment over my way,too, in due course!)

David said...

When I know, I'll be sure to tell you. The big question remains which of the two new productions next year will open the festival in May.

And happy haunting from the Prokofiev First Violin Sonata. Hope you've found a recording where the pianist is absolutely equal to the violinist.

Willym said...

You do realize I am in a BIG pout about now - I decided not to come over for the Rameau and then of course you go and make me envious as all get out!!!!!!

I fell in love with it when I bought a recording with Dame Janet, Robert Tear, John Shirley Quirk and Angela Hickey (?) conducted by Anthony Lewis.

But then certain people started to mock my love of Rameau... only joking. Unfortunately my schedule meant I couldnt' but as always your description made me wish I had.

Hmmm party for Rosenkavalier next year??????

David said...

The more the merrier, Will, though I draw the line at those rather choosy opera fans joined at the hip 'Andrew' and 'Joshua' (see above).

Susan Scheid said...

Martha Argerich with Gidon Kremer, so not too shabby, right? The Youtube I've posted in the sidebar on the blog is Oistrakh with Vladimir Yampolsky, whom I don't know, but I'm thinking Oistrakh wouldn't have worked with him if he weren't up to snuff--though you're the one who'd know for sure!

To Will, I say, too, the more the merrier, of course with the exception David notes!

David Damant said...

I am concerned about the number of operas now in modern dress. I suppose that the idea is to make the drama more accessible. Maybe in the case of myths as in this case it does not matter - very much. But so much can be lost. My main bind is in the case of social distance. John Gielgud said that young men today cannot act as princes, and so often the actors or singers walk about the stage as though they were just other performers. At the Royal Opera House Aeneas just strolled onto the stage to meet Dido. Almaviva was a great aristocrat ( he was going to be ambassador to England and had recently given up the droit du seigneur) not just a well chosen voice. I suppose that to see the correct body language today one would have to watch those visiting the US President. Power radiates and so did social position which may be easily lost if modern clothes impose a modern democratic view onto those in powerful roles. I am a great believer in an opera's drama being in the music and one can always wear dark glasses. But a director in adopting modern dress is imposing a view ( and not only on the matter of social distance) on the audience not envisaged by the composer. I admit that there are many other ways in which a director imposes a view in opposition to the libretto ( corpses being thrown into lime pits in the last act of Idomeneo)

David said...

Now you're sounding like a serious reactionary, Sir David. Here is a case in point where modern dress frees up the extraordinary dramatic depths in the sometimes smothered main story - wigs and courtly gestures would distract from the passion of Phaedra. And let's remember that Shakespeare's productions were invariably in contemporary costume however far back in history the subject-matter. As for that matter were the 'mythological' subjects at Versailles and in Paris.

David Damant said...

I must defend myself against being a reactionary. I am maybe too logical and if logic leads me to conclusions that have other disadvantages, so be it, but I am not reactionary as such. My point is not against seeing a performance in a valid new light but in losing valid elements in the original. (I did say that the opera under present consideration may not suffer too much and you point to significant advantages) And although I am an historian manque I admit that errors of fact do not ( maybe) detract from the play or the music, as a drama. Henry IV ( Shakespeare) is a bit hopeless as history but this does not detract from the magnificence of the play as a play.

But I do believe that even in modern dress Aeneas and Almaviva and Henry IV and Henry V should ( I think with difficulty)show the body language of princes and the chorus should show the body language of people who were so much below the princes

The scene in Henry V where Exeter uncovers the tennis balls is an example of how the behaviour of the court should show the distance between themselves and an absolute monarch. Even the Ambassadors from the Dauphin ask if they can disclose their mission exactly, or speak with caution. Yet so often actors and singers behave without the extreme care with which they should perceive the king or prince

David said...

Fair enough. I think one might observe such a gulf in the behaviour of Arab princes and princesses to their bowed, often enslaved servants. I'll never forget how strikingly modern a Savonlinna Aida seemed when the magnificent Adina Aarons, of Ethiopian origin I believe, held herself in obeisance to the Amneris. You could tell there were banked fires waiting to burst out.

David Damant said...

Apposite that you should mention the Arab princes. I was once on a plane with a Saudi prince and his demeanor was at once kind and very grand. When exiting the plane at Kennedy he was greeted by a group which showed all the "right" ( I put no value judgement on that) body language. That is how Aeneas, Almaviva etc should act.