Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie (DVD)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rameau
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Hippolyte et Aricie
PERFORMER: Topi Lehtipuu, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Stéphane Degout, Sarah Connolly, Jaël Azzaretti, Salomé Haller, Marc Mauillon, Aurélia Legay, François Lis, Aimery Lefèvre, Andrea Hill, Nicholas Mulroy, Manuel Nunez Camelino, Jérôme Varnier, Sydney Fierro; Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm; dir. Ivan Alexandre (Paris, 2012)
CATALOGUE NO: 462 2917

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The premiere of Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 launched a turbulent career making Rameau the dominant force in French opera in the mid-18th century. The challenges came from conservatives fearing this ‘new kid on the block’ – even though he was already 50 – might undermine the canonic works of the great Lully. In fact, much in Hippolyte looks back to the tone and structure of Lully’s operas, including a major debt to Racine, even though the sweep and sheer imagination of Rameau’s musical language far outstrips him. While tradition is served in the stately prologue, dance and the many set pieces, the fact that Rameau was alive to Italian influence, by this time firmly part of French musical life, and had a remarkable ear for harmonic effect and orchestral colour is always apparent.

As a whole, Ivan Alexandre’s production is appropriately stately and Antoine Fontaine’s set seems superbly authentic, complete with handsome backdrops and flying machines. Unfortunately, the prologue and the start of the first act is a little stilted with stiff dancing and uncertain choral attack; a pity, since the rest of the opera moves with confidence, dramatic security, and fine singing and dancing. Topi Lehtipuu’s Hippolyte is rather underpowered and Anne-Catherine Gillet’s Aricie occasionally querulous, but the remaining major roles are magnificent. The drama in the first act coalesces around Sarah Connolly’s powerful Phèdre, and Stephane Degout’s resonant Thésée dominates much of the remaining acts. Emmanuelle Haïm’s musical direction is taut, insightful and expressive, and Le Concert d’Astrée play like a dream with some particularly fine woodwind playing. The recorded sound could have favoured the upper voices a little more, but in general the visual presentation allows this intricate opera to emerge convincingly. A slightly mixed bag, but in general this is a very creditable presentation of a masterpiece.

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Jan Smaczny