March 10, 2009 11:42 pm

Hippolyte et Aricie, Theatre du Capitole, Toulouse

At the beginning of the 1980s when the Baroque revival really started in France, the emphasis was on faithfully recreating the original. In opera that meant singing, orchestra, dancers and producer were all driven by the same imperatives. One famous production even kitted out the musicians in powdered wigs and frock coats. But producers soon started to experiment with modern approaches, refusing to treat Baroque opera as a restrictive genre on the lines, say, of Japanese No theatre.

Real thing: Allyson McHardy as Phaedra and Stephane Degout as Theseus

Real thing: Allyson McHardy as Phaedra and Stephane Degout as Theseus

Now the procedure has come full circle, judging from Ivan Alexandre’s new production of Rameau’s first opera. Alexandre defends himself against the charge of historical reconstitution, but bar a few contemporary poses and an orchestra in civvies that is what he has done. He talks of respecting the genre’s particular codes, which is an implicit criticism of contemporary meddling, though it is worth pointing out that others have modernised Rameau and succeeded, notably Laurent Pelly in his Platée and José Montalvo in Les Paladins.

That said, there is clearly room for authenticity, in spite of its museum overtones, if it looks as fine as this. And the names you will remember from the production team are, first, the set designer, Antoine Fontaine – for his eye-bath sets of painted flats, which exploit a keen sense of trompe l’oeil perspective, imaginative use of fabrics (the sea monster that gobbles up Hippolytus), and a memorable tunnel vision of Hades – and, second, Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz for his gorgeously embroidered pastel costumes. This production, in fact, looks so lavish you wonder if the Capitole hasn’t managed to hack into the Tarp scheme.

Emmanuelle Haïm conducts her Concert d’Astrée band with vigour and precision but could be more indulgent with Rameau’s thrilling innovations.

Casting happily banishes voiceless wonders and goes for real singers. Anne-Catherine Gillet (Aricia) struggles with Baroque phrasing but Frédéric Antoun’s tuneful Hippolytus is exquisite and Jaël Azzaretti rightfully scores a big hit as a sparkling Cupid. Best of all are the roles that form the real dramatic core of the piece: Stéphane Degout sings a powerfully moving Theseus and Allyson McHardy’s fiery Phaedra – trim mezzo muscle, steady line and mastery of French declamation – is a revelation that rivals Jessye Norman and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the same role.

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