Hippolyte et Aricie

Jean-Phillipe Rameau, libretto by Simon-Joseph Pelligrin
Nationaltheater Mannheim
Nationaltheater Mannheim

The Cast of Hippolyte et Aricie Credit: Cristian Kleiner
The Cast of Hippolyte et Aricie Credit: Cristian Kleiner
The Cast of Hippolyte et Aricie Credit: Cristian Kleiner

50-year-old Jean-Philippe Rameau (1693–1764) had a big success in 1733 with his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, which took its inspiration from Euripides and Racine.

A milestone in the development of opera, it instantly divided opinion. There were those who wanted something new and modern (Rameau devotees) and liked it; and there were those who wanted something old and traditional (Jean-Baptiste Lully devotees) and found it over-complex and didn’t like it at all.

When I decided I was going to watch Lorenzo Fioroni’s brand new production for Nationaltheater Mannheim, I thought it would be a good idea to watch a more traditional production first. I chose Ivan Alexandre’s production for Paris’s Palais Garnier in 2012, when the opera was given the full Baroque treatment. I loved the performance. Musically and vocally, it was a delight.

In the formal Baroque world, everything is in posture and decorum. In Fioroni’s production, conducted by Bernhard Forck, there is no order, no formality, only chaos. I am glad I did watch Alexandre’s production first. Had I not done so, I shouldn’t have had a clue as to what was going on.

The set, designed by Paul Zoller and Loriana Casagrande, is a deliberate mess of hanging ropes and hanging lights. The floor is littered with paper. There is an actor’s dressing table with bulbs and there are rails full of costumes. The costumes, designed by Katharina Gault, are from a variety of periods.

Some members of the chorus are in the auditorium and in stage boxes behind Plexiglass panels. The chorus on stage wear COVID masks and some carry candelabras. A baroque opera without dancing would be unthinkable. There is no courtly dancing here. Instead, there are two pantomime horses: one drags a coach, the other brings on a tray with a glass of wine for Theseus.

King Thésée (Nikola Diskić) returns from Hades (where he has been searching for a dead friend) to find hell is in his own home. He discovers his all-but naked wife Phèdre (Sophie Rennert) entertaining Hippolyte (Charles Sy), his son by his first marriage. Phèdre accuses Hippolyte of trying to rape her and he believes her and banishes him. The truth is, she tried to seduce him and he, horrified by the idea of incest, rejected her. Hippolyte is in love with young Aricie (Amelia Scicolone).

Thésée, in his dinner jacket, has his most dramatic scene when he keeps stabbing a portrait of Jupiter who is portrayed as an old, bloated, 18th century fop with a huge wig and rouged lips. Patrick Zielke, who plays Jupiter, also plays Pluto who is portrayed as a brainless, ugly thug who runs Hades on military lines.

Phedre emerges as far more a tragic figure than Thésée does. Her despair has the greater intensity; especially when she learns that Hippolyte has died in a car crash. (An 18th century paparazzo photographs the incident with a modern camera!)

I enjoyed the music and the singing. The production is fun, but many viewers are going to be confused and irritated by the distractions, however fascinating.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch