Juilliard Opera, Juilliard 415, and Juilliard Dance’s spring production, composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and librettist Simon-Joseph Pellegrin’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” (1733), after Jean Racine’s “Phèdre” and the ancient Greek tragedies, proved, as guided by Stephen Stubbs, conducting from the harpsichord; Stephen Wadsworth, the director; and Zack Winokur, the choreographer, no museum piece, dusty and stultifying, but vivid, pulsating opera and theater. Three performances were scheduled, between April 17 and 21, and the first one is reviewed here.
The story is familiar to many who studied the classics: Phèdre (Phaedra), the Queen, is married to and reigns alongside King Thésée (Theseus)the same Theseus who abandoned Ariadne on Naxosbut cherishes a dangerous illicit love for Hippolyte (Hippolytus), Thésée’s son, her own stepson, and beloved of Aricie, but advised by Oenone, her unswervingly loyal nurse since childhood, makes Thésée believe that Hippolyte is entirely to blame.
Bass Alex Rosen, a swaggering Thésée, and mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano, a dignified goddess Diane (Diana), introduced the work in a spoken, English-language prologue. Then the opera proper began, made up of spare, elegant French Baroque solos, choruses, and dances, full of turmoil and laments for many losses, or joyous and celebratory, and dramatic, declaimed recitative. Guest Kyle Stegall, a sure haute contre (high tenor) Hippolyte, and Onadek Winan, an Aricie singing in pure, bell-like soprano tone, discovered and declared their love; endured separation by a jealous Phèdre and by Diane’s followers, led by soprano Shaked Bar, as the High Priestess; and enjoyed reunion by the goddess herself, who finally brought Hippolyte back to life, after he tangled with a sea monster. Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze, an intensely dramatic Phèdre, dressed by costumer Sarah Cubbage in fiery red, in contrast to everyone else, raged and suffered grandly, until her character could no longer bear to live with deceit, guilt, and conflict, and perished by her own hand.
Rosen’s Thésée faced the furies, the dead, in the underworld, and thanks to leader Tsiphone, commanding tenor Joshua Blue; the god Pluton (Pluto), bass William Guanbo Su, matching Rosen’s sonority; and the inexorable fates, Charles Sy, Xiaomeng Zhang, and Andrew Munn, endured graphic tortures, involving rope, resounding blows, and a hot poker, until Mercure (Mercury), high tenor Chance Jonas O’Toole, brought a plea from Thésée’s father, the god Neptune, baritone Hubert Zapiór, for the torment to cease. In her idyllic forest by the sea, Diane ensured a happy ending for Hippolyte and Aricie, as new leaders of the people, though barred from any contact with Thésée.
Completing the cast, sopranos Meghan Kasanders, as Oenone, and Jessica Niles, as a sailor, made worthy contributions. Charlie Corcoran designed apt settings with a classic look. Lighting was by David Lander and wigs and makeup by Tom Watson. For information about future presentations, visit www.juilliard.edu