WORKS: Hippolyte et Aricie
PERFORMER: Véronique Gens, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Bernarda Fink, Thérèse Feighan; Ensemble Vocal Sagittarius, Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
CATALOGUE NO: 445 853-2 DDD
To my mind, successful performances of French Baroque opera need two qualities. One is a feeling for the drama, a readiness to exaggerate contrasts in mood, and therefore in tone, timbre, pace and dynamic, for all they’re worth. The other is an intuitive elegance that enables lines to breathe naturally, harmonic progressions to flow with Gallic suaveness, charm and shape. Both elements are usually present in William Christie’s offerings of French music, but for Marc Minkowski in his much-heralded debut for the Archiv label, a live recording made at the lovely little Theatre Royal in Versailles of Rameau’s masterly opera Hippolyte et Aricie, the drama counts for everything.
Since this is such a dramatic piece, with underworld confrontations and overtones of incestuous love expressed in arresting, vividly coloured music, Minkowski just about gets away with it. But often moments of poignancy sound either a little anxious or a touch wooden. A problem, perhaps, in viewing the whole phrase as the primary rhythmic unit rather than bar or beat, or a matter of the tension of live recording removing the ability to relax into such passages.
The singers’ character portrayals are excellent. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Véronique Gens are both good in the title roles, though Russell Smythe’s Thésée – wonderfully assertive and rich-toned – and Bernarda Fink’s unscrupulous Phèdre almost steal the show for the parents.
Minkowski’s chosen text is a hybrid based mainly on the first version of 1733, but with bits added and subtracted here and there. However, he chooses the 1757 version for the opening two scenes of Act II, when Thésée ventures to the underworld, a wildly colourful torrent of sound that hasn’t been heard since Rameau’s day. All these decisions are fully documented in the excellently produced booklet. Stephen Pettitt