Have you ever wondered what would happen if you staged an entire Rameau opera on the inside of a French person’s refrigerator? I hadn’t either – but this is why we watch opera, isn’t it. There are always questions that you never even realized you hadn’t asked.
I watched this version of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie from Glyndebourne mainly because it had Sarah Connolly in it, but also because I have occasionally had interesting experiences with French baroque opera. Not all the time, but occasionally. I enjoyed Lully’s Armide and there are some entertaining bits in Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. But at the risk of being called a philistine, if we left out all the ballet and stage spectacle, I am not sure that I would turn up for the music alone.
Part of the appeal of this particular version was that the production seemed to raise some hackles. (Seriously, go read the comments on the Glyndebourne webpage. There are also pictures.) Apparently there are people who take issue with the idea of a baroque opera being staged inside a small French refrigerator.
It’s like this. During the prologue, we are faced with the interior of the fridge. On the left are some sausages and vegetables, on the right orange juice, eggs, and a few other items I could not identify. Diana appears in the empty ice-box area, dressed in white with icy makeup (I was reminded of the Kusej Zauberflöte where the Queen of the Night explodes out of a fridge. I have intended for some time to make a gif of that, although for what purpose I cannot tell) and Cupid – Cupid and Diana are arguing over who shall rule over the people in the place they’re in – emerges from an egg. Later we see that Cupid’s torso and legs are feathered, like a chicken’s. Diana’s handmaidens are wearing white fur coats; Cupid’s chorus, wearing targets on their jerseys, troop out from behind the sausages. Naturally.
We first meet the human characters – Hippolyte, Aricie, Phaedra – in a different space. Visually, it’s the same pattern, cool metallic looking rounded boxes, like square old-fashioned refrigerator doors, but the left-hand one is smooth, and on the right there is a dead deer hanging by its neck. During the first act, we see the followers of Diana in action, bringing in a second dead deer, filling up a bucket with its blood, getting it all over themselves and others – the act ends with several more deer, and reflections of the deer in the metal boxes, hanging in the air. Diana requires sacrifices. Lots of them. (The story at this point is that Theseus’s son Hippolyte is in love with Aricie, who has been forced to swear herself to Diana; Theseus’s wife Phaedra – not Hippolyte’s mother – is in love with Hippolyte.)
The rest of the production follows in a consistent, although perhaps not readily explicable, pattern. When Theseus goes down to Hades for reasons not directly connected to the business with his son and his wife it emerges that Hell is behind the refrigerator. And if the game is refrigerators, this is not unreasonable. Pluto stands atop some bits of electrical wiring; demons poke their heads out from between the vents in the back of the fridge; the light is bad. The only thing missing was some of those brightly colored plastic letter/number magnets that always seem to end up back there.
For the big confrontation and reveal in Act III, our heroes are stationed in what looks like a sort of dollhouse built into one of the halves of the fridge-pattern. It’s a dim brownish-looking apartment with a giant fish tank (the fish-tank goes into a kind of seizure, on the inside, when Theseus prays to Neptune, which makes a certain kind of sense, I guess) and, towards the end, a singing and dancing chorus of slightly fey sailors. There are people in the Glyndebourne comments who found the sailors (I quote) “unnattractive.” I would take issue with this – they seemed like perfectly normal looking people to me – but (I feel as if I’ve fielded many an analogous question to this in graduate seminars) perhaps we might set the attractiveness of the sailors aside for a moment and consider instead what they might be doing inside the French refrigerator.
Diana’s grove in Act IV is a single room with an oversized bed and chair on which Hippolyte and Aricie sit as they ponder their sad situation – and the fifth act is in a chilly place that looks rather like Act I. It evokes a morgue. Aricie and Hippolyte are wheeled in on gurneys. The chorus of rejoicing that follows is performed in near-dark by figures in black, with Diana hanging down from above, not by the neck, but in a position evocative of the sacrifices to her early on. The music itself sounds rather sad, despite being ostensibly happy. Cupid (I think it’s cupid, anyway) returns, and there is the obligatory bit in this sort of opera where we mention nightingales and the woodwinds imitate birds (whoever the soprano is – I think it’s Ana Quintans, but only if it’s Cupid singing this bit – is pretty good) and after this they bring in Phaedra, likewise on a gurney. Phaedra had committed suicide at the end of Act IV what with all the incest and stuff, but she comes back, and is made to sit in a chair and watch some dancing, while Theseus and Hippolyte stand on gurneys looking upset while Cupid is lowered down, hanged, on a rope like the deer.
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