Today I took the road less traveled. At the same time as the Canadian Opera Company opened their new production of Un ballo in maschera, in the afternoon before the Superbowl, Opera in Concert took us in a less popular direction under the guidance of Kevin Mallon, leading the Aradia Ensemble. Mallon wears many hats, including his newest as Artistic Director of Opera Lyra in Ottawa.
I studied Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie long ago, more recently purchasing a CD with the historically informed approach that’s now de rigueur. While it’s a colourful and intriguing work, I didn’t expect to see this opera onstage. Yes, Abbé Pellegrin’s adaptation of Phaedre may have been “a hit” in the 18th Century, but it’s off the radar now. According to operabase.com’s compilation for 2012-13 Hippolyte et Aricie was the 305th most popular opera in the world (with eight performances), placing it second among Rameau’s works (after Platée and ahead of Les Indes Galantes): which puts it roughly comparable to Handel’s eighteenth most popular opera, but ahead of anything by Telemann, Barber or Orff. Even that low number is suspect, when several operas further down are only there because of the way stats are reported (eg Adès’s Powder Her Face and Benjamin’s Written on Skin are listed lower because the exact number of performances isn’t listed).
So in other words we are fortunate that Voicebox –Opera in Concert offered a semi-staged version, as this can’t be mistaken for pandering to their audience or a blatant cash-grab. Semi-staged means that gods would walk out onstage, and at times the Fates participated in the action, bundling a character up in a huge mass of fabric to rush them offstage: a strategy likely not so far away from what might have been used in the time, but on a much smaller scale I would think. We didn’t get the full spectacle as there were no costumes or sets. But even so the charismatic whiff of theatricality in the presentation was certainly enough for this listener, when coupled with Rameau’s score and Pellegrin’s libretto as channelled by Aradia & Mallon.
I think modern listeners are often off the track in how we respond to baroque performance. These are not so much pieces of music telling a story, but rather stories enlisted to give singers opportunities. Just as Racine’s Phaedre would have been a star vehicle for an actress, Pellegrin also offers a vehicle for a singer in that role. As with so many figures from ancient mythology Phaedre is like a chapter from a psychology textbook, a study in pathology as she gives voice to her desire for her step-son and then –when he vanishes—is wracked with guilt. In other words her extreme passions—rage, desire, remorse—are ideal for an operatic treatment. While there may be lots to listen to in this opera, Phaedre is squarely at the centre of the work.
OiC didn’t disappoint in casting Allyson McHardy. I’ve missed that gorgeous voice, her unrelenting approach to performance. In addition to the villainous side of the performance, McHardy added a surprising vulnerability, an element that felt modern, and made the character three-dimensional. Her passions were larger than life in this portrayal.
Several other casting choices demonstrated that OiC understood this as a special occasion, one I’m glad I didn’t miss. As Thesée Alain Coulombe was McHardy’s match at the other end of the emotional spectrum, a powerful dark presence easily filling the space with his warm voice. As Hippolyte we had another opportunity to hear Colin Ainsworth, who has steadily been growing in lyric tenor roles (often for Opera Atelier), a secure instrument gradually getting bigger without losing any of its sweetness. Ainsworth was paired with Meredith Hall, a supple voice capable of articulating subtle emotion. Of the immortals, Vania Lizbeth Chan’s Diane made anything seem possible, both in the plot of the opera and her delightful coloratura.
Mallon led a sparkling performance, always putting the singers in a favourable spotlight.
Opera in Concert continue their mission of providing interesting programming off the beaten track on March 23rd with Verdi’s Stiffelio.