When Rameau wrote his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, in 1733, it caused an explosion in the Paris musical scene, with a complexity of orchestration that polarised its listeners. Musically, last night’s performance at Staatsoper Berlin did Rameau his full due: Sir Simon Rattle and the Freiburger Barockorchester gave an account of wonderful vivacity and poise, with compelling vocal and choral performances. Sadly, the staging was almost unwatchable.

Reinoud Van Mechelen (Hippolyte), Anna Prohaska (Aricie), Staatsopernchor
© Karl and Monika Forster

Hippolyte et Aricie is based on Racine’s tragedy Phèdre, itself based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Theseus’s son Hippolytus and the enslaved princess Aricia are in love: the first obstacle to their union is removed when, in an uncharacteristic fit of kindness, the goddess Diana releases Aricia from her vows and blesses the union. The second obstacle proves a harder nut to crack. while Theseus is in the underworld in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his friend Pirithous, his wife Phaedra is infatuated with her stepson. Theseus returns precisely when, to Hippolytus’ horror, Phaedra has thrown herself at him. Unwilling to incriminate his stepmother, he goes into exile, taking Aricia with him, but at Theseus’ request, Neptune sends a sea monster to intercept them. In Racine, Phaedra commits suicide, but operatic convention of the time demanded gentler stuff, and in Act 5, Hippolytus and Aricia are rescued by Diana and meet blissfully among suitable festivities.

Gyula Orendt (Thésée), Peter Rose (Pluton), Roman Trekel (Tisiphone)
© Karl and Monika Forster

The singing varied from good to superb, the latter in the shape of the low voices: Gyula Orendt as Theseus and Peter Rose as Pluto. Their confrontation in the underworld was riveting: Rose (in spite of announced indisposition) with a huge, stentorian bass and Orendt with warmth, strength and agility of phrasing. More than anyone on the night, Orendt commanded our empathy with the king who engages in the most perilous of missions, returning from hell merely to discover hell in his own family, with no-one willing to tell him the truth. Hippolytus is a less interesting character (events happen to him, rather than at his instigation), but Reinoud van Mechelen sung the role in a lovely lyric tenor which was thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Magdalena Kožená sang Phaedra with authority; Anna Prohaska sang Aricia with an attractive soprano marred by poor French diction; Elsa Dreisig can only be described as luxury casting for the role of Diana, with lovely timbre and command of phrasing. The many lesser roles produced some telling individual vocal moments.

Reinoud Van Mechelen (Hippolyte), Elsa Dreisig (Diane), Anna Prohaska (Aricie)
© Karl and Monika Forster

The Freiburg Barockorchester were never short of excellent. The sound of the many Baroque woodwind instruments was a thrill to listen to, the strings accented the rhythms with verve, percussion was bang in time, dance rhythms tripped merrily. Rattle cannot have asked for more from his players, nor from the Staatsopernchor, who produced a glorious blended sound.

But sadly, I’m using the word “unwatchable” literally: I don’t like spending three hours of opera having bright lights shone directly into my face. Designer Ólafur Elíasson goes sci-fi, which is fine, but his method of doing so is to clothe the women in costumes whose main feature is high reflectivity. The focused, harsh beams of spotlights are reflected straight at the audience. At best, it dazzled me such that I couldn’t see detail of the rest of the costume; at worst, it actually hurt. In Act 4, Elíasson had lights shining directly at the audience to make our reflections visible in a giant mirror at the back of the stage. There was more: when a chorus member, singing in the orchestra pit, leant forward to blow their nose, a shaft of light reflected distractingly up into the audience. Away from the spotlights, dancers and chorus, clothed in black, often moved around an unlit stage, with only a glimmer of their outlines visible. When the lighting brightened up, dancers’ movements were multiplied by reflections in more mirrors – or would have been, had the angles been such as to make the reflections visible from any but a small number of seats.

Act 5: Anna Prohaska (Aricie)
© Karl and Monika Forster

Where director/choreographer Aletta Collins’ staging was visible, it did little to enthrall. Characters stood stiffly in their places on stage, with little facial expression and no real sign of interaction: no romantic chemistry was discernible between Hippolytus and Aricia, no sexual frisson from Phaedra: Kožena’s gestures were histrionic from a bygone age. Dancers executed their moves with athleticism and precision, but the choreography did nothing to enlighten the story, the psychology or even, at least to me, to provide geometrical interest. The near slow-motion pace of many of the dances seemed utterly at odds with the brightness of Rameau’s music.

A futuristic, choreography-driven Hippolyte et Aricie – why not? But executed with such clumsiness and so unimaginatively, this was a sadly wasted opportunity to build on a wonderful musical performance.