Hippolyte et Aricie – Arcola Theatre, London

Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau

Libretto: Abbe Simon-Joseph Pellegrin

Music and Stage Director: Marcio da Silva

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Being the mortal offspring, lover or interlocutor of a Greek God never turns out well and Prince Hippolyte is doubly damned – not only the grandson of Neptune with a famous father, but also a devotee of Diane to whom he pledged early allegiance. Stage adaptations of Greek plays continue with some frequency but the French-language opera Hippolyte et Aricie is rarely performed, so this new version at the Arcola’s Grimeborn Festival will be a first for many.

As convoluted plots go this is a particularly knotty affair. Before the opera begins, King Thésée (Theseus) has descended into the Underworld to rescue his friend from the dark lord Pluto. Granted three wishes by his father Neptune, Thésée escapes only to find his wife in a compromising position with his son Hippolyte. But Hippolyte is in love with Aricie who renounced her plans to be a virgin attendant to Diane when she fell in love. Naturally enough, chaos ensues.

Director Marcio da Silva is surprisingly open about the opera’s failings in the programme notes. Described as over-orchestrated after its first performance in 1733, its heavily baroque music has a stately quality that can overcomplicate an overcomplicated story. da Silva has transposed the first two Acts to improve clarity, playing Thésée’s hellish escapade as a dark opener prior to the lovers’ first meeting, but without a rudimentary knowledge of Greek mythology and the synopsis, the narrative strands would be far harder to follower.

It doesn’t help that in blocking this 2 hour and 15 minute show, too little attention has been paid to audience sightlines with the far bank of the Arcola’s three-sided auditorium faring the worst as scenes are performed in the opposite direction or on the diagonal. Again and again and again performers stand with their backs to the audience, entirely obscuring the singer or action. It is clearly a deliberate choice to have the cast perform to the back wall as though the Gods resided there, and if they do they have a far better view than anyone else.

Designer Christian Hey has delivered visions of heaven and hell, dividing characters and scenes into clear black and white sets – Thésée and his Queen Phédre, as well as the creatures of Pluto’s lair, are dark, malevolent presences, scrabbling in the dirt, while the lovers, Diane and her attendants have white gowns and floral adornments. The first scene change is cumbersome but in the second half the pastoral design allows the different Acts to flow much better.

Ensemble OrQuesta offers training opportunities to young singers and among them Kieran White’s Hippolyte is a strong tenor and ardent admirer to Juliet Petrus’ Aricie – as is the way their roles are reasonably insipid but are charming together. But it’s really the villains who shine; da Silva is excellent as Thésée, conveying a large backstory of troubled parentage and fame in a small role while Alexandra Bork’s Phédre is hugely sympathetic as melancholy monarch whose every word is dripping in torment.

Under Kieran Staub the eighteenth-century composition is very interesting, full of varying speeds and lightness in the harpsichord (Seb Gillot) that plots the changing mood. Rameau’s opera is of its time, over-earnest about innocence and love while Pellegrin’s libretto in translation is sometimes a little archaic in construction and language which adds to the overall confusion. Nonetheless, Ensemble OrQuesta are pushing boundaries and championing up-close opera in its original language.

Runs Until: 17 August 2019 | Image: Contributed

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