Hippolyte et Aricie in Zurich

French baroque opera has the reputation of being somewhat boring compared to its German and Italian equivalents. No one who attended the performance of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie in Zurich could possibly agree. The solo arias may be less brilliant than those of, for example, Handel but the score is full of imaginative ideas, whether vigorous rhythmic passages for strings, doleful phrases for flutes, or rousing calls from the trumpets, not to speak of the contributions from timpani and wind machine. And what better advocate than Emmanuelle Haïm directing the Orchestra La Scintilla? They received the loudest cheers from the enthusiastic audience at the end and justifiably so.

Not that the singers were disappointing; in fact, the opposite was the case. Cyrille Dubois’ pure and clearly articulated tenor, sensitive to line and phrasing, was ideal for Hippolyte and dramatically he was a noble and yet also sceptical lover. Hugely impressive also was Stéphanie d’Oustrac as a passionate Phèdre, adding venom to her open-voiced declamations; her final duologue with Thésée was the highlight of the evening. He was sung by Edwin Crossley-Mercer whose sonorous flexible bass successfully negotiated the intervals, twists and turns of this demanding role, made all the more interesting by his sullen-faced, introverted characterisation. If Mélissa Petit, as Aricie, did not make the same impact as the other three principals, it was because, though sweet-voiced, she did not sufficiently project, or draw adequate emphasis from, the text.

The production directed by Jetske Mijnssen, designed by Ben Baur and Gideon Davey, was classical in the best sense of the term. It was faithful to the spirit and style of the early 18th century, stately in its decors and costumes, and yet sufficiently “modern” in the portrayal of a society of gods and mortals torn apart by lust for power and dysfunctional family relationships to make a contemporary impact. Indeed, such interpolations to the original as were made – Perithous viciously killed by the Furies for displaying a homosexual attachment to Thésée; the ending with Hippolyte and Aricie united not in happiness but in static apprehension – brought out legitimate implications of the drama without perverting it.

Nor were the traditional components of French baroque opera neglected. The divertissements were adeptly incorporated into the show, without unduly distracting from it. And, aided by Kinsun Chan’s choreography, the various inhabitants of the Underworld, as well as Diana’s entourage, were given a colourful and humorous presence. Altogether, a convincing and moving testimony to the high quality of offerings at the Zurich Opera House.