Going for Baroque French style
A parody of a French opera takes the stage in Beijing in an ongoing early-music series, Pang Bo reports.
Aparody of the baroque opera Hippolyte et Aricie ( Hippolytus and Aricia) by Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), the most important French opera composer of the Enlightenment period, was staged on Sunday at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.
The show, the second part of this year’s Early Music Season, was presented by the Center of Baroque Music of Versailles to mark the 250th anniversary of Rameau’s death.
The opera, based on classical mythology, is about the story of Thesee, king of Athens, who has gone to the underworld in a vain attempt to rescue a friend. Meanwhile, in Athens, his wife Phedre has fallen in love with his son by a previous marriage, Hippolyte, who himself loves the young princess Aricie. Thesee returns only to discover the turmoil in his household, and Hippolyte is falsely accused of an assault on Phedre. Thesee curses his son and calls on the gods for revenge, which comes in the form of a monster that attacks Hippolyte. All think Hippolyte dead, and the queen, full of remorse, reveals the truth. Eventually, Hippolyte turns out to have been miraculously rescued by the gods, and he is returned to wed Aricie.
Hippolyte et Aricie was Rameau’s first opera, though he was nearly 50 when he composed it. His reworking of the Greek story of Phedre and her infatuation with her stepson Hippolyte can never quite settle on who and what the opera is really about — is Phedre the central character, or is itHippolyte and his lover Aricie, or even his father Thesee?
In this parody version, as love eventually wins, the triumph of Hippolyte and his lover Aricie can be regarded as an ode to pure love.
On the stage was a small puppet theater with the musicians playing in front of it during the show. As the frame and sides were left open, the audience could clearly see scenechanges and the work of the puppeteers throughout the performance. The singers were situated in front of the puppet stage, with Phedre on the left and Thesee on the right. Puppeteers sang the parts of Hippolyte and Aricie. With beautiful puppets constructed, manipulated and dressed as they were in Rameau’s time, the parody tries to revive the spirit of the French opera.
A scene which centers on the stepmother Phedre’s passion for her stepson Hippolyte, following the death of her husband, is an amusing farce, as the stepmother tries everything, from leaping onto him and rushing around the stage, to make Hippolyte interested in her. Thwarted— as Hippolyte is faithful to his love with Aricie — Phedre flies around the stage in anger, banging her head against the walls and pillars.
The most amusing scene comes when Hippolyte goes into the countryside and contemplates his dilemma because his father thinks he’s having an affair with the queen. The scene opens with an empty stage set as a pastoral scene. A hen enters and clucks and pecks around the stage. Hippolyte enters, complaining about his dilemma and after each sentence, he is answered by the hen. The scene concludes with Hippolyte raising his voice, making the hen fly up in surprise and then dropping an egg onto the stage, which made the audience burst into laughter.
The parody performance, a perfect interaction among singers, puppeteers and music players, was in French using authentic pronunciation, with Chinese subtitles displayed on two screens on the left and right sides of the stage.
Apart from marvelous puppeteers and the beautiful costumes of the marionettes, soprano Marie Kalinine’s Phedre and baritone Alain Buet’s Thesee were quite impressive.
Ensemble Philodor, directed by Mira Glodeanu, provided an audio feast of historical instruments, with two violin players, a viola player, a viola da gamba player, a harpsichord player, an oboe player and a flute player. Violinist Mira Glodeanu and viola da gamba player Nils Wieboldt were most impressive as they reproduced the charm of the elegant baroque music. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.