Jean-Philippe Rameau: French baroque, finally on a roll

Costume for a Fury in 'Hippolyte et Aricie' engraved by René Gaillard (c1710-90)

It started as long ago as 1965. An American undergraduate, listening to a long-playing record in Boston, Massachusetts, had an experience that changed not only his life but the course of musical history. The recording, by English singers Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk, was of an 18th-century opera that few had heard of at the time – Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. The music so “intoxicated” the Harvard student that he now describes his first encounter with it as “one of the great moments of my life. I was persuaded to stop fooling around and go into music in a serious way.”

That student was William Christie, architect of the French baroque music revival of these past 30 years and conductor of this summer’s Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne. Without Christie, now 68, it is unlikely that the perfume, the drama, the eloquence of French music of the ancien régime would be appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic in the way it is now. His academic grounding and gift for musical animation have made it possible for mainstream opera companies to take on what had, until only a few years ago, been confined to specialist ensembles in France.

But wait: if Rameau is so significant, why hasn’t Hippolyte et Aricie been chosen to open Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2013 programme today, instead of being tucked into the middle of the season? And why has the privately funded festival on the Sussex Downs taken so long to dip its toe into the French baroque, given that Rameau’s music is ideally suited to performance conditions there?

On the surface, the reason is simple. This summer is the last in which Glyndebourne will have the services of Vladimir Jurowski as music director, and he understandably stands at the forefront of the programme – as conductor of today’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. In his 12 years at Glyndebourne, Jurowski has profiled himself almost exclusively in romantic and modern repertoire. It is a long while since any of Strauss’s operas (once a staple on the Sussex Downs) were played there, and Jurowski, schooled in Russia and Germany, is a stranger to French baroque.

But there are more complex reasons for Rameau’s belated debut: to do with the peculiar demands of 18th-century tragédie lyrique and the taste of Sir George Christie (no relation to William Christie), who ran Glyndebourne for more than 30 years before handing over to his son Gus in 2000. Christie père never made a secret of his dislike of Rameau, and his continuing influence was enough to veto well-developed plans for Hippolyte et Aricie in 2005, with Simon Rattle conducting. Now, with Sir George’s influence waning and with the success of English National Opera’s Rameau (Castor et Pollux in 2011), Glyndebourne’s team clearly feel emboldened.

It was William Christie’s enthusiasm that turned the tables, building on a string of successful Handel and Purcell productions that he conducted there. “I told them, ‘Look, you’ve got to be cutting-edge, you’ve got to take risks’,” he says, invoking the spirit of Glyndebourne’s postwar heyday, when it championed little-known (but now popular) operas by Rossini, Monteverdi, Richard Strauss and Janácek.

Jean-Philippe Rameau painted by Jacques-André-Joseph-Camelot Aved (1702-66)

There are ample grounds for approaching Rameau with care. His operas are expensive to put on: the cast list for Hippolyte runs to 14, and that’s just the principal singers (Handel and Mozart casts are small by comparison). They require specialist continuo players – harpsichord, cello, double-bass – and an orchestra conversant with period style, “for he wrote these enormously complicated orchestral accompaniments, full of recherché effects, with the most beautiful colouring”, Christie says. “He loved bassoon, flutes and oboes, and used them in a way no one had used them before.”

What’s more, Rameau’s operas involve lavish dance elements that you cannot cut: the dance is woven into the fabric of the music – not just the masque-like divertissements that are integral to the genre, but also elaborate arias and recitatives. For an unsubsidised company, charging high prices for a long run of performances, that’s a lot to take on.

There is also the French language, “which determines the melodic curve, rhythm, phrase-length, accents and dynamics”, Christie says. “Rameau has an extraordinary sense of text and how language works, but you’ve got to discover a way of dealing with it that allows everything – the declamation, the syllable length, the syllable weight – to become eloquent. If you don’t pay attention to this, performances become lacklustre, they don’t catch on.” That explains why Glyndebourne has scheduled a six-week rehearsal period, starting immediately after today’s season-opening Strauss performance.

But the decision to stage Hippolyte et Aricie is only half the battle. The challenge remains of making an absorbing dramatic spectacle of it – a task that its director Jonathan Kent seems to approach with relish. He describes the story as “a controlled experiment in which a group of mortals are put under a bell-jar so that the gods can see the effects of Cupid’s licence ... What it tells us is that the anarchy of unrestrained, inescapable passion is destructive, but that a life without the intervention of passion is a life diminished. How do you strike a balance between the two?”

That sounds as much a preoccupation of 21st-century mortals as it is for the characters of Greek mythology who populate Hippolyte et Aricie. On that basis, we can expect Kent’s staging to have contemporary cadences, as a counterbalance to what he calls “the marvels that French baroque opera uses to ravish the ear and make people gasp. In that sense the opening ceremony of the London Olympics was a sort of baroque spectacle. So are MTV music videos. They appeal to all the senses, and that seems to me to be the way to go with baroque opera.”

Let’s hope Hippolyte et Aricie is a big success. It needs to be: not only for Glyndebourne and its patrons, but also for the wider good of opera. Rameau was an unusual man who didn’t write Hippolyte, his first opera, until he was 50. Then, in his final 30 years, he wrote a string of masterpieces of the most extraordinary variety. If Hippolyte goes down well, it will create a case for doing some of the others on the Sussex Downs – Dardanus, Les Indes galantes, Les Boréades. The Rameau revival may have only just begun.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera runs from May 18 to August 25,

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