The realm of the goddess Diana is a refrigerator, Hell is its motor, there are eviscerated stags hanging around and the dancing is about as baroque as Pan’s People. So why didn’t I hate it? Well, it’s one thing to have dead animals around, quite another to force a singer to do a bit of butchering mid-aria – and whilst there was plenty else to occupy the eye onstage here, the director had had the decency to spare most of the singers from doing very much else other than concentrate on Rameau’s delicate, complex, sophisticated music.
If you loved Glyndebourne’s Faerie Queene, you’ll love this, too – it’s the same team, with the same approach which mixes respect for the music with outrageous whimsy; it works, despite a few inconsistencies, and of course it’s musically superb, in the safe but never dull hands of William Christie. Diana’s chaste and passionless realm is well suggested by the ‘fridge, with bull’s-eye-targeted men emerging from the chipolatas (or saucisses?), Cupid hatching from the egg compartment and the goddess herself, gloriously costumed in silver, instructing her followers from the freezer compartment. Much use is made of contrast – the frosty white of Diana’s acolytes (who appear to have been costumed from the White Company Summer catalogue) with the startling animal blood, the brilliant red of Pluto with the muted tones of the retro-home which that classic dysfunctional family, that of Theseus, inhabit.
You could go just for the costumes and effects, and still be happy – those ‘flying’ gods and goddesses – Mercury an especial joy – the jolly sailors (this season’s bonking bunnies), the branches outside the unhappy son’s and stepmother’s bedroom, like Lawrence’s ‘terrible whips’ of the ash tree, the gruesome yet fabulous flies emerging from the back of the ‘fridge, Phaedra’s stunning cocktail-wear (think Lady Macbeth dressed by Donna Karan)and the brilliant scarlet of the hunters’ outfits – all delighted the eye yet never detracted from the music.
And what music it is: if you don’t know Rameau, he was a classical theorist as well as composer, and his Treatise on Harmony remained a standard work for centuries; he has a particular style related to French classical drama – just as, say, we don’t find it easy to ‘feel’ for Racine’s Andromache in the same way as we might for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, so it’s not always easy to empathize with these gods and the mortals who follow them. The music is demanding without being constantly virtuosic, and the challenges it poses are related to the declamatory style and the French language itself.
These challenges were met with grace and style: the eponymous lovers were sweetly taken by Christiane Karg and Ed Lyon, both looking as beautiful as they sounded, and Sarah Connolly’s Phaedra added yet another role to the list of mezzo parts which she ‘owns’ – as she arose from the ‘shroud’ someone was heard to whisper ‘Oh God, she’s not come back to life, has she?’ Stéphane Degout was a convincingly tortured Theseus, François Lis a splendidly macabre Pluto, Katherine Watson (standing in at short notice) a commanding Venus, and Emmanuelle de Negri relished her three parts, culminating in a mellifluous ‘Air du Rossignol.’
William Christie conducted Rameau’s score with absolute understanding of his style – fragile and earthy by turns, the playing was a joy in every bar, nowhere more so than when we got to hear a Musette, and when the nightingale’s song came warbling from the pit. Dardanus next time, please, with the same musical and dramatic direction.