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Rameau hippolyte NBD0138V
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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Hippolyte et Aricie - Tragédie Lyrique in Five Acts (1733/42/57)
Hippolyte – Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor)
Aricie – Elsa Benoit (soprano)
Phèdre – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo (mezzo)
Thésée - Stéphane Degout (baritone)
Pluton / Neptune – Arnaud Richard (bass)
Diane – Eugénie Lefebvre (soprano)
Œnone – Séraphine Cotrez (mezzo)
Premiere Parque – Constantin Goubet (countertenor)
Deuixième Parque/ Arcas - Aimery Lefèvre (tenor)
Troisième Parque – Virgile Ancely (baritone)
Prêtresse/ Chasseresse/ Matelote/ Bergère – Lea Desandre (mezzo)
Tisiphone – Edwin Fardini (baritone)
Mercure – Guillaume Gutiérrez (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
Jeanne Candel: Stage Director
Lisa Navarro: Set Designer
Pauline Kieffer: Costume Designer
Cesar Godefroy: Lighting designer
Yannick Bosc: Movement Collaborator
rec. 12, 14 November 2020, Opéra Comique, Paris, France
Picture format: HD 1080i
Sound format: LPCM 2. 0 / DTSMA 5.1
Region code: A, B, C
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
NAXOS NBD0138V Blu-ray [140 mins]

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s earliest opera Hippolyte et Aricie has certainly become his most successful work on recordings. This latest release on Blu-Ray/DVD brings the number of complete recordings to six in total: three on CD and three on video. There is something to be gained in spending time with them all as each offers its own pleasures and pains, not unlike the love scenarios that Rameau was inspired to create.

The first production of this opera at the Palais-Royal in 1733 caused a sensation which divided Paris audiences into factions of enthusiastic supporters and those of his adversaries. This situation would repeat itself at regular intervals throughout the pre-revolutionary years, as composers Gluck, Piccinni, Cherubini, and Salieri would all come to discover. Rameau would continue to tinker with the opera to make it more acceptable to his audience, first in 1742 and finally in 1757. The accompanying booklet gives no information as to which version has been used in this performance on but I believe it to be the 1757 edition.

There is a special air of dedication which seems to infuse the performances of just about everyone involved in this production. The production was prepared for a run of live performances but the resurgence of pandemic cases forced the closure of the theaters in France just as this was ready to reach the premiere. The company and the media sponsors decided to go ahead and stage the opera in the empty house and film the production for posterity. This results in a rather strangely touching film of the curtain calls, with all of the artists, chorus, orchestra and extras seen standing silently in the empty auditorium to the sound of a superimposed applause track.

Jeanne Candel’s production is something of a mixed bag and is at times quite confusing. It stands midway between the historically accurate production of Ivan Alexandre on the Erato DVD with Emmanuelle Haïm and the zany surrealism of Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production on Opus Arte. Candel places her action on a multilevel industrial scaffold which gets various embellishments added or removed during the course of the opera. Costumes are mostly modern office attire but are enhanced with Greek or 17th century elements. Where Candel excels is in her direction of the four principal characters. She clarifies their tortured relationships to one another in a very clear manner. Aricie is presented in a state of advanced pregnancy which adds a greater urgency to her hidden love for Hippoyte and makes Phèdre’s competitiveness and jealousy all the more realistic. Where Candel fails is in the direction of just about everyone else. The divertissement sections of each act become quite messy and needlessly confusing. In the First Act for example, the followers of Dianna pointlessly shoot paintballs all over a white sheet backdrop. The scene in Hades with the Three Fates is an outright disappointment as they are presented in a catatonic state sporting dull office clothing, which robs the scene of its mystery and fantastic elements. It’s no wonder that Theseus wants to get away from them.

Vocally there are some real standout performances here. The release is remarkable in being the first one that presents a cast made up almost entirely of native-born French singers. Foremost among them is Stéphane Degout’s superb assumption of Theseus. He has been unusually lucky in that all three video releases feature him. One has to turn to the audio recordings in order to hear anyone else sing this role. Degout is excellent in each of the videos but this one in particular stands out as his most deeply moving account. He is so emotionally invested in his portrayal during the second and third acts that it is clear that he responds on a very deep level to the director’s approach. His singing of the role has always been immaculate but here the added emotional intensity creates a frisson of excitement that surpasses his other two versions. On a similar level is the Phèdre of Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. This excellent mezzo seems to go from strength to strength each time I encounter her. I had previously noted her major success as Queen Gertrude in the Naxos Blu-ray of Thomas’ Hamlet, also involving the excellent Degout review. Her beautifully focused tone and impassioned delivery of “Cruelle mère des amours” is worthy to stand alongside the best of the previous recordings. The old Decca set with Janet Baker under Anthony Lewis provides the most elegantly phrased lines to be heard in Phèdre’s solos but Brunet-Grupposo holds her own with rest of her rivals and she has the benefit of the textual accuracy of her perfect French.

Elsa Benoit is a poised Aricie who commands our sympathy for her touching portrayal of the desperate princess. Vocally she brings a creamy tone and pinpoint precision to her lyrical music. As her lover Hippolyte, Reinoud Van Mechelen delivers a vocally satisfying portrayal and he seems to revel in the high tessitura of the role, which holds no fears for him. Arnaud Richard offers a powerfully sinister Pluton despite being the cast member who is most undermined by the toned-down modern costumes. The excellent young mezzo Lea Desandre delivers an exceptionally pure-toned account of the concluding “Rossignols amoureux”. The music is usually sung by a soprano but Desandre conquers it with a sweet charm that puts the finishing touch to this production. The perfection of her voice combined with the simplicity of the staging allows me to be lenient about much which has occurred before it.

The Ensemble Pygmalion are in fine form for their leader Raphaël Pichon. He directs the score with an admirable clarity that doesn’t forget to add touches of individual flair here and there throughout this long score. Naxos have produced this Blu-ray with their usual standard of professionalism although documentation is on the lean side. An interview with the director might have helped to clarify Candel’s view of this opera and made some of the elements less puzzling to the viewer.

Mike Parr

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