If you'd told me that Phèdre had been composed by Gluck, I'd have completely believed you. Instead, the composer of this tragédie lyrique was Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1751-1796) of whom I knew absolutely nothing. He was, apparently, an admirer of Gluck and Phèdre contains many of the ingredients present in a score such as Iphigénie en Tauride, pushing the boundaries of Classical opera to its limits. Simply staged and presented without interval in the compact, antique space of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord – Peter Brook's Parisian base for years – it provided 90 minutes of music drama packed with astonishing intensity.

Judith van Wanroij (Phèdre) © Grégory Forestier
Judith van Wanroij (Phèdre)
© Grégory Forestier

Marc Paquien's production for Palazzetto Bru Zane, seen earlier this year at the Théâtre de Caen and heading to l'Opéra de Reims in the autumn, strips the opera to its bare essentials. Benoît Dratwicki has adapted Lemoyne's score for four singers and just ten instrumentalists, mostly by stripping away the choral numbers and ballet music. The ten players from period instrument band Le Concert de la Loge were very much part of the action. Brandishing their bows and woodwind instruments like weapons and led by violinist Julien Chauvin, they entered via the rear of the sloped stage, nestling into nine miniature pits to play. The four fully costumed singers wove between them using few props other than a dagger, although there was little physical action. Surtitles were projected onto the distressed walls of the tiny theatre (as seen in the opening of Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 film Diva, which was shot here). With the stage stunningly lit by Dominique Bruguière, the effect was mesmerising.

Diana Axentii (Œnone) and Judith van Wanroij (Phèdre) © Grégory Forestier
Diana Axentii (Œnone) and Judith van Wanroij (Phèdre)
© Grégory Forestier

Lemoyne's music trembles with emotion. There are few examples of what we'd think of as conventional arias; they are more dramatic recitatives, the orchestral players adding their feverish commentary. The Act 3 prelude bristled with Sturm und Drang energy. The playing of Le Concert de la Loge balanced earthy drama with impeccable taste, vibrato sparingly employed. The horn and woodwind playing oozed pungency, with only the occasional sour note.

The plot is familiar from Greek mythology. Believing her husband, Theseus, dead, Phaedra declares her love for his son, Hippolytus. He rejects his stepmother, only for Theseus to return from war. Sensing a rift and believing Hippolytus guilty of attempted rape, Theseus banishes his son, calling on the gods to punish him. Learning that Hippolytus has been drowned by a sea monster, Phaedra confesses her crime to Theseus and kills herself at his feet.

Enguerrand de Hys (Hippolyte) and Thomas Dolié (Thésée) © Grégory Forestier
Enguerrand de Hys (Hippolyte) and Thomas Dolié (Thésée)
© Grégory Forestier
Judith Van Wanroij had great presence as Phèdre, her soprano occasionally breathy for dramatic effect, and she coloured the French text with great imagination. Her Act 1 air “Ô jour cher et terrible”, the stage darkened, was terrific, Wanroij almost eyeballing the audience as her vocal line swept the theatre. Her maid Œnone was sung by Moldovan soprano Diana Axentii in rich, dramatic voice, blending well with Wanroij's lighter colouring.

Enguerrand de Hys' Hippolyte was as if touched by Midas, hair sprayed gold to match his clothing. His tenor, a touch cloudy lower down, opened up sweetly on top notes. His Hippolyte conveyed the character's conflicted horror, trapped in the headlights, as it were, when Phèdre confesses her love for him. Best of all was Thomas Dolié, whose robust baritone was immensely strong as Thésée. He was in most imposing form when imploring Neptune to punish his son. Voices don't need to be huge in this venue, but Dolié can command larger spaces than this with ease.

A production well worth seeing, an opera which demands to be heard.

 

Mark's press trip to Paris was sponsored by Palazetto Bru Zane