Classical review: Glyndebourne's Hippolyte et Aricie is a musical triumph, but the drama misfires

Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex

For its belated first foray into French Baroque opera, Glyndebourne chose Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie and wisely invited William Christie to conduct.

And it seemed sensible to put the director-designer team of Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown in charge of the staging: the fantastical synthesis of song, dance, and orchestral divertissements which they had achieved with Purcell’s Fairy Queen was just what was required for Rameau’s fanciful melange. Kent’s desire to ‘reinvent Baroque opera for the 21 century’ led him to draft in as choreographer Ashley Page, the wild boy of British dance.

In this version of the Phaedra myth, the incestuous queen’s passion and punishment is set in the context of her step-son Hippolytus’s love for the virginal Aricia; meanwhile the goddess Diana defeats sexually anarchic Cupid and imposes on the world her regime of sexual restraint. This gave rise to Kent’s guiding concept: his drama would unfold in ‘cold places where the heat of passion could be frozen’.

Thus it is that the curtain rises on a giant fridge whose open door reveals giant comestibles from among which the chorus, clad in white fur, sing their initial number. Male dancers jump out from behind sausages, Diana materialises like a Louis XIV doll in the freezer compartment, and Cupid hatches out of an egg like a hyperactive chick: so far, so witty.

Musically the work progresses with great assurance. If Ana Quintans’s Cupid has a pinched tone, and Christiane Karg’s Aricia lacks the requisite vocal charm, the performances which Christie extracts from his other singers are stunning. Katherine Watson’s imperious Diana, Ed Lyon’s coltish Hippolytus, and Francois Lis’s dark-toned Pluto are all spot-on, while Emmanuelle de Negri and Mathias Vidal purvey a ravishing sweetness of sound. Sarah Connolly invests Phaedra with both grandeur and a desperately human vulnerability; Stephane Degout’s Theseus sends up prayers to Neptune in singing of transcendent beauty. The diction and phrasing is perfectly idiomatic; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is on top form.

Yet gradually, inexorably, the show comes unstuck. Page’s inept, cliché-ridden choreography founders in screaming campery, while the Kent-Brown concept undermines the spirit of the work. The fridge idea works brilliantly for Hades, but presenting Diana’s ‘innocent’ domain as a blood-boltered abattoir - and delivering the finale in a morgue with a realistically-hanged Cupid descending from the skies - travesties Rameau beyond redemption. And why equate sexual moderation with death?