Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne, East Sussex – review

Intermittently throughout this performance the giant face of a man peers out at the audience with expressions of bewilderment, amusement and horror. It is easy to sympathise with how he feels: Glyndebourne can rarely in its history have served up anything as wildly over-the-top as this Hippolyte et Aricie, the festival’s first ever Rameau opera, directed by Jonathan Kent.

The operas of the French Baroque pose a problem today. Conceived as lavish, aristocratic entertainments with sets, costumes and dances to dazzle, they leave most present-day directors struggling to find some comparable, modern theatrical style. But this has not stopped Jonathan Kent and his designer, Paul Brown, who have gone shamelessly for overkill, throwing in everything down to (almost) the kitchen sink.

The central story of incestuous love is moved to a suburban French house circa 1960, where angst-ridden stepmother and teenage son seem to be living a tolerably normal life, until Neptune sends a tidal wave pouring in through the light sockets in the ceiling. And do not ask what is going on in the kitchen: a giant refrigerator opens up to reveal a whole community living inside among the tins of escargots and duck pâté, with Diana as a frost-bitten goddess ruling over the freezer compartment and Cupid hatching like a spring chicken from one of the free-range eggs. By the time a chorus line of sailors from South Pacific invades the living-room for a song-and-dance number under pink ballroom lights, one’s brain is completely fried – the (admittedly stunning) theatrical panache of it all being the show’s saving grace.

Somewhere under all of this a far better opera is struggling to get out. Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout are outstanding as Phaedra and Theseus, Connolly a barely-suppressed volcano of illicit desire, Degout suffering eloquently with his every word. Ed Lyon sings sensitively as a hormone-charged Hippolytus and Christiane Karg is vocally strong, if less varied, as his loved one, Aricia. A fine, mostly French-speaking supporting cast, led by François Lis as Pluto/Neptune, is under the expert direction of William Christie conducting the marvellously agile Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – such musical richness, such prodigious invention, if only the production had not already taken us into the realm of total sensory overload.


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