Greek tragedy is an inexhaustible reservoir of great human stories; in fact it´s hard to think of any meaningful basic situation that hasn´t been imprinted in our lives by those fantastic tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. In the case of Phaedra, wife of Theseus and stepmother to Hippolytus, the reference is Euripides´ "Hippolytus". The other great classical play is Racine´s "Phaedra", which completes the quartet of principals with Aricia, in love with Hippolytus. Modern visions of the conflict come from Gabriele D´Annunzio and Miguel de Unamuno.
By rare coincidence, two operatic versions of the story have been premiered here within two weeks: Jean-Philippe Rameau´s "Hippolyte et Aricie" by the Compañía de las Luces at the Museo de Arte Decorativo, and Mario Perusso´s "Fedra" at the Colón.
Jean-Philippe Rameau came late to opera; after a brilliant career and recognised as a major figure of his time, he wrote his "tragédie lyrique" at 50 in 1733. It was a great success and he was launched into an operatic career that he would crown at 80 in 1764 with "Les Boréades". Here most of his production is unknown, but at least we saw "Castor et Pollux" and a semistaged condensed "Les Indes galantes". We still owe him a full-scale complete staged version of one of his major operas at the Colón and with a specialist team able to give full due to the dance.
I am sorry that Simon-Joseph Pellegrin´s libretto, based on Racine, changes and softens the end, depriving Rameau and us of a suitably tragic ending. Nevertheless, what magnificent music we hear during two hours, with the composer´s flights of orchestral imagination very apparent, as well as his highly dramatic continuous seesaw in his vocal writing between heightened recitative and arioso, almost never seeking vocal display but instead psychological truth.
The Gods in Racine intervene less than in Euripides and what matters most is Phaedra´s irresistible passion, but the Furies, especially Tisiphone, are part of that drive. There are also parts for Pluto, Diana and Mercury. In Daniel Birman´s version (he is the founder and leader of the Compañía de las Luces) there are some cuts. It is a pity that he cut the first scene of the Fifth Act, a dialogue between Theseus and his father Neptune after Phaedra´s death. Other cuts: the final two scenes of Act One; in Act Three, a short scene, a duo, and some scenes in different order from the recording of reference conducted by Anthony Lewis.
Birman and his Compañía de las Luces have done yeomen work for the French Baroque with several premieres by Lully, Rameau, Charpentier, Gluck and Salieri, several of them at that very special venue, the Museo de Arte Decorativo. It has a unique beauty and splendid acoustics, but of course it lacks a stage and productions must perforce be minimal. I don´t agree with producer Pablo Maritano´s ideas, few and unconvincing, especially the continuous carrying in and out of seats. And some absurd movements for the chorus were negative. The costumes by Emilia Tambutti were reasonably good, especially Phaedra´s. The few dances were played but not danced.
Four singers were really good: Marisa Pavón as a dramatic Phaedra in singing and demeanor; Sergio Carlevaris as an anguished Theseus showed a splendid bass; Pluto was sung forthrightly by Norberto Marcos; and Nadia Szachniuk was a charming Shepherdess. Aricie was done rather pallidly by Ana Moraitis; Pablo Pollitzer had his slim vocal means in better shape than in recent years and sang his Hippolytus with style. I found Beatriz Moruja miscast as Diana and I disliked the wild exaggeration and timbre of Esteban Manzano as Tisiphone. Apart from poor singing from Soledad Molina, the others were in the picture: Damián Ramírez, Cecilia Arroyo, Luciana Milione, Martín Benítez and Juan Feico. The Chorus was correctly prepared by Marcelo Dutto and participated with much good will. The 24-piece Orchestra was simply splendid under the knowledgeable conducting of Birman, they all played with fine style and professionalism.
"Fedra" is Mario Perusso´s fifth opera and maybe his best. He is now septuagenarian but his composing powers seem at their zenith. The orchestration is resourceful and there are strong melodies of real persuasive power; alas, they are mostly in the orchestra and a lot of the singing is too arid, but the end result is communicative. His language oscillates between tonality and free atonality.
His son Marcelo is the librettist, producer and stage designer. I find some faults in his work in the first capacity, for the text is at times too rhetoric and even ungrammatical. But some scenes have a raw power that seem influenced more by D´Annunzio and Unamuno than by Racine . As producer he got excellent perfomances out of a picked cast. His massive blocks evoke Mycenean times and his costumes were quite adequate. The intelligent lighting by Rubén Conde always heightens dramatic impact. And the expressionist choreography by Guillarmina Tarsi blended easily with the action in the proper places.
Of course, no one could conduct better this music than the author, and the Colón Orchestra responded admirably. There is no choir. The lead roles were taken with uniform high vocal and dramatic quality by Alejandra Malvino (Phaedra), Marcelo Puente (Hippolytus), Daniela Tabernig (Aricia), Emilio Estévez (Theseus) and Haydée Dabusti (the Wet Nurse). Other roles were well taken by Florencia Machado, Alicia Alduncín and Gustavo Feulien.