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The tone of this production is both whimsical and sad, in a detached kind of way. Some of the whimsical bits have the effect of both pushing aside and emphasizing the fact we have people sloshing around with buckets of deer blood and the whole thing ends with the execution of Love. (In fact, the whole thing has the same “whimsical and a bit dark but also very glossy and slick and occasionally nudge-nudge” vibe I got from that Glyndeborne Fairy Queen from a while back, and lo and behold, it’s the same director, Jonathan Kent. Well!) We have the refrigerator people in the prologue making a little forest out of broccoli with an orange-slice above for the sun, and dancing around in it – but we also have the very real pathos of Phaedre (Sarah Connolly), who has found herself in an impossible position and pays the price.
My favorite parts of this were those with Connolly in them. Her Phaedre is a performance with enough emotional force to have what I think was the desired and intended effect of working with with the strangeness of the surroundings and making the character’s strange and terrible plight leap out rather starkly – and making the music that brings it to life more compelling. This is especially true in Act III, which takes place in the odd little toy house, open in front like a Barbie house – and indeed, by the time the Charmingly Fey Sailors’ Chorus shows up, the house is lit in garish bright pink. Phaedre, who as a character in Greek mythology is probably used to being treated by Fate the way we all used to treat our Barbies, experiences her torment in this bizarre and open-to-observation setting that makes it seem small and flat and overdetermined but also very sad. And the way that Phaedre’s suicide is dramatized is perfect – everything is silent, no more music, and she just walks down into the dark. These characters exist by virtue of the music, and so having her death be simply silence is great. (And it’s consistent with her reappearance in Act V, where she is on stage, but does not speak or sing. She’s still dead.)
Stéphane Degout as Theseus also impressed me, especially Theseus’s various monologues in which he makes his various important decisions – e.g. at the end of Act III, where Theseus decides to use his last prayer to Neptune (his father, who has granted him three) to punish Hippolyte. Ed Lyon as Hippolyte and Christiane Karg as Aricie both bring the right combination of smoothness and intensity.
There are moments in this when I got absorbed in the music. A lot of the introductory music to each of the acts is done very well by Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as is the bit in Act II where Theseus is accompanied by a rolling pattern under/over the vocal line from the strings. And Connolly, as noted, makes interesting music that I think in other hands might come off as a little dry. If one were to get distracted by the whole refrigerator thing, one might not notice how high quality an operation this is.
But what about the whole refrigerator thing – or the chorus of charmingly fey sailors, for that matter?
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