We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


Natalia Kutateladze and cast of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (photo by Richard Termine)

Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1733 opera Hippolyte et Aricie was presented last night at The Juilliard School in an impressive collaboration among the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, Juilliard415 (the renowned historical performance group), and Juilliard Dance. We cannot imagine any other cultural institution that could have pulled this off so effectively and with such high artistic and entertainment value.  What a coup!

Employing a libretto by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin (based on Racine's tragedy  Phèdre) , Rameau broke new musical and dramatic ground in this work; based upon myth, it carries substantial psychological weight. Like life, it is not quite comedy (in the sense of a happy ending) and not quite tragedy.

For the lovers Hippolyte and Aricie, a mostly happy future awaits. Having moved beyond the stance of denial of love in her long-standing feud with Cupid, the goddess Diana appoints Hippolyte as the new leader of her order.  At Hippolyte's side will be the lovely Aricie, probably named for the town of Aricia, a place near Rome in which shrines to Diana have been erected.

For Thésée, the war hero (a demigod sired by Neptune), the future is not so rosy.  He has been rescued from the Underworld by Mercure bearing a message from Neptune. Upon his release he discovers his wife Phèdre in a suspicious confrontation with his son Hippolyte. Phèdre has been lusting after Hippolyte secretly and, urged by her nurse Oenone, has revealed her secret passion and has offered him the throne.  He loves Aricie and does not want the throne either.  Swords are drawn.

Oenone casts blame on Hippolyte and Thésée banishes his own son. At the end of the opera he is a broken man, having lost everything. The remorseful Phèdre dies by her own hand. This is just the bare bones of the plot, told just so readers will know that a lot happens!

The casting was astute and the singers never flagged in this lengthy and difficult score. Several performances stood out for their psychological insightfulness. It is always special when a singer portrays a hateful character but inspires your sympathies. Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze is just such an artist. The librettist gives us no clue about her backstory but Ms. Kutateladze's Phèdre seems a victim of forces beyond her control with which she has done battle.  Of course, in this genre it is always the fault of the gods. There is a lot of fire available in her instrument and also the ability to express pain and remorse, both in her arias and in the recitativi.

As Thésée, bass Alex Rosen opened the opera with a show of arrogance, that of a conqueror.  In this spoken prelude (we have no evidence but believe its contemporaneous bent suggests it has been written recently), he is countered by the words of Diana who has no use for male stupidity. In the Underworld, we see him tortured by the Furies (more about them anon) and begging for mercy. Then we find him in a rage over a perceived betrayal by his son, and finally as a shadow of his formal self, stumbling across the stage. Mr. Rosen captured all this in his voice and gesture.

The Diana of mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano was similarly effective as she went through a softening of attitude toward love, inspired by the devotion of her two followers Aricie and Hippolyte. Just another magnificent performance from this gifted artist!

As Aricie, soprano Onadek Winan, as lithe of body as she is of voice, conveyed all the innocence of the ingenue role. She is not called upon for much emotional upheaval but rather to use her pure sweet instrument to make us love her and want her to be happy.  She succeeded.

As Hippolyte, tenor Kyle Stegall sang his beautiful phrases with  ardency and fine phrasing. He disappears for awhile fighting a sea monster (offstage) and we were very happy that he was restored by Diana, both to make the dear Aricie happy but also so we could hear him sing some more!

Star baritone Hubert Zapiór, previously hidden in the chorus, made an appearance at the end of the opera with godlike bearing, to refuse Thésée's wish for death. He neatly sums up the moral of the tale--"Leave to the gods what the gods alone can do".

Act II takes place in the Underworld and is staged to evoke maximum horror. Tenor Joshua Blue's portrayal of the Fury Tisiphone produced chills that were only exceeded by the Pluton of bass William Guanbo Su who has the vocal heft and imposing bearing to carry off the role. In a bit of luxury casting, the roles of the three Fates went to tenor Charles Sy, baritone Xiaomeng Zhang (singing baritenor, and singing it just fine) and bass Andrew Munn. Their trio was a highlight of the evening.

The role of Oenone was performed by soprano Meghan Kasanders; the role of La Grande Prétresse was sung by soprano Shaked Bar; tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole created the character of Mercure with just a few phrases and a special color to his voice.

We were admiring one of the petite dancers and later figured out she was one of the singers who happens to be a fine dancer!  It was soprano Jessica Niles as Une Matelote. It seemed to us that the singers at Juilliard are so well trained in movement that it was difficult to discern and we can be forgiven for the error. As a matter of fact, everything that happened onstage was as seamless as the music. With Stephen Wadsworth as Director we are not surprised. Zack Winokur's choreography reminded us of Mark Morris' oeuvre and was simple enough that the singers blended right in with the dancers.

Stephen Stubbs conducted the splendid Juilliard 415, playing on period instruments that lent a soft sound to Rameau's music. Considered revolutionary in its day, Rameau broke ground both harmonically and in the organization of the parts. There were some exquisite duets for the couple in love and Ms. Winan and Mr. Stegall made the most of them. Rameau created several memorable ensemble pieces as well as a few choruses. The integration of arias, ensembles, choruses, dances, and instrumental interludes was superb.

We understand that there were parts that the singers of the period could not handle and they had to be excised. Here, they were restored. Juilliard knows no challenge it cannot meet!

The effective sets by Charlie Corcoran involved trompe l'oeil Greek temples and a woodland with seashore, as well as the menacing Underworld. David Lander's lighting emphasized the sunshine of a new day at the conclusion of the opera.

Costumes by Sarah Cubbage were outstanding with as much influence of the 18th c. as of the days of mythology as we imagine them. Aricie wore a simple white shift to emphasize her purity whereas Phèdre wore an impressive red gown with billowing skirt. The gods wore long brocade coats, all of them looking as regal as could be. Diana and her followers looked exactly the way one might imagine them, and carried bows and arrows in a quiver.

Seems like all the artists at Juilliard have lots of arrows in their quivers!

(c) meche kroop

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