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Hippolyte et Aricie review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘visceral immediacy’

Hippolyte et Aricie at the Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Andreas Grieger
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Hippolyte et Aricie, a take on the Phaedra story first seen in 1733, is a landmark opera by a supreme French composer, yet opportunities to see it are infrequent. While Rameau conceived it as a grand spectacle, Ensemble OrQuesta presents an intimate staging using a condensed version of the score.

The opera sets the tragedy of Phèdre and her stepson Hippolyte in a wider mythological context. Furies and, especially, goddesses exert their will, but this production really ramps up when the human relationships take centre stage.

The costumes – black and cream, with scarlet for Phèdre – are timeless and the body language is highly stylised, but there is visceral immediacy in the confrontation between stepmother and stepson and in the final reunion of the resurrected Hippolyte and his beloved Aricie. Rameau’s sensuous and inventive response to the text is clearly crucial in this, but director Marcio da Silva knows how to create powerful images – such as the manifestation of Neptune’s sea monster, a long black organza tube, manipulated by the members of the chorus.

Da Silva (who trained in France) also takes the role of Thésée, singing with dark power, while Alexandra Bork’s richly vibrant Phèdre achieves compelling grandeur. As Aricie, Juliet Petrus is sweet-toned and exquisitely precise in her ornamentation, and Kieran White as Hippolyte – a characteristically high-lying Rameau tenor role – is unfailingly elegant and touchingly sincere. Jessica Summers offers a delightful episode with her sailor’s ditty.

Elsewhere, there is some untidiness in the singing and the energetic playing of the instrumental ensemble, but Kieran Staub’s conducting – like the staging as a whole – is vividly theatrical.

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Stylish and vividly theatrical condensed version of Rameau’s baroque masterpiece