Modern Rendering Of Rameau Opera Fizzles In Berlin

Aricie (Anna Prohaska) is bathed in light in a new production of Rameau’s ‘Hippolyte et Aricie’ at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, with a period ensemble led by Simon Rattle to kick off the company’s Barocktage. (Photos by Karl and Monika Forster)

BERLIN – Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie had never been staged at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden until Nov. 25, and the new production offered what, on paper, seemed an exciting take on the opera: a renowned visual artist on sets, a period ensemble in the pit, a director capable of choreographing dance interludes rather than leaving them by the wayside. And yet the result, which kicked off the Staatsoper’s new Baroque festival, the Barocktage, was more ambitious than revealing.

Rameau’s first opera made musical history for its expressive harmonies but is not often experienced live, particularly in the German-speaking world. The libretto adapts the Racine play Phèdre about the jealous queen who tries to seduce her stepson but moves the focus to the lovers Hippolyte and Aricie, who have the goddess Diane on their side.

Simon Rattle, in his debut with the Freiburger Barockorchester, conducts the revised 1757 score, which tightens the narrative. At his side is the British director and choreographer Aletta Collins, while the Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson — perhaps most famous for outdoor installations such as The New York City Waterfalls — takes on sets and costumes.

The 1757 opera was given modern staging and choreography by Aletta Collins; cross-lit sets by Olafur Eliasson.

The first act immerses the singers in a prism of crossing light beams that at times flash directly into the audience’s eyes. Only in the final scene, as they close in on Phèdre – reflecting dramatically off her silver lamé, neo-bustle dress – do the lights have any apparent meaning: As they figuratively stab her, they appear to predict her demise.

Space-age, neon-lit spheres crown the heads of Theseus and Tisiphone, who haunt the Underworld.

A long pause ensued before the second act on opening night, with drilling and stagehand dialogue audible before the curtain opened to Pluto’s underworld. Here Eliasson’s aesthetic finds a better match, although the space-age, neon-lit spheres around the heads of King Theseus and the Fury Tisiphone appeared more unwieldy than metaphorical.

Collins, meanwhile, introduces a mix of stand-and-sing scenes and choreography that is more often stark and emotionless, less often inspired by the music. The Act Three sailors’ dances feature a mix of balletic and contemporary vocabulary that moves with the numbers’ rhythmic sweep, while the writhing female bodies in the Furies’ Air in Act Two seemed isolated in their own world.

Magdalena Kožená is the exasperated Phèdre, who comes between the lovers.

The second scene of the fifth and final act finally achieves a mesmerizing synchrony between the work of Collins and Eliasson. Dancers create striking shadows in a sea of rainbow spotlights, summoning an appropriately mythic realm as Aricie finds herself in a forest blessed by Diane. Act Four, however, has few arresting moments. The mirrored backdrop facing the audience, so powerful in Eliasson’s 2007 staging of Henze’s Phaedra for the Staatsoper, hardly recreated the magic of that production.

Musically, the production was uneven. Rattle’s reading of the score was a model of historically informed performance practice, with non-vibrato in the strings and tight, motoric rhythms. Yet slow numbers at times lacked the sensuality crucial to French Baroque, and the style of the instrumental playing was surprisingly out of sync with the singing of the female leads.

Soprano Anna Prohaska brought a sultry tone to the role of Aricie but seemed challenged to rein in her sometimes dramatic sound and blend with the orchestra. She was more convincing in the final act, however, delivering elegant trills that imitated a warbling bird in her final arietta, “Rossignols amoureux.”

Reinoud Van Mechelen, as Hippolyte, brought beautiful diction and supple timbre to all his numbers.

Magdalena Kožená was moving as the exasperated Phèdre, especially in the fourth act, but she resorted to mannered expression in the first half of her Act Three aria “Cruelle mère des amours.” The Hippolyte of Reinoud Van Mechelen was musically more restrained and even, bringing beautiful diction and a supple timbre to all his numbers. Staatsoper ensemble member Elsa Dreisig was reliably charming in her cameo appearance as Diane in the final act.

Gyula Orendt, elegant as King Theseus, with dancers in his mythic realm. Despite arresting moments, the production was uneven.

Peter Rose was a steadfast Pluto despite having a sore throat and Gyula Orendt elegant as King Theseus (particularly when he sang without neon lights around his head in the Act Two aria “Dieux! n’est-ce-pas assez des maux”). Ensemble member Sarah Aristidou was a stand-out in the comprimario roles of Diane’s High Priestess and a sailor, with a bell-like tone that cut through the orchestra.

With so much talent involved, it’s a shame the evening turned out to be a disappointment. Collins received her fair share of boos at curtain call, while Eliasson never walked onstage. Rameau’s opera may not have a breakthrough in Berlin after all.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.