My Summer of Phaedra: An interview with Sarah Connolly

Sarah Connoly in Giulio Cesare, Glyndebourne Festival 2005, Photo: Mike Hoban

For some fifteen years, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly has been welcomed on the world’s greatest opera stages and concert platforms.  But perhaps nowhere has she felt more at home than at Glyndebourne, where she began her operatic career as a chorister in 1992 and has since returned to star in Giulio Cesare, St. Matthew Passion, and Tristan und Isolde.

Now headlining Glyndebourne’s new production of Hippolyte et Aricie, as well as singing Britten’s cantata Phaedra at a BBC Prom concert on August 2, she paused to chat with company Dramaturg Cori Ellison about what she calls “My Summer of Phaedra”.

Cori Ellison: You’re now immersed in portraying the Greek tragic heroine Phaedra just months after playing her equally tragic cousin in Medea at English National Opera. This begs the question: How do Phaedra and Medea compare as characters?

Sarah Connolly: Both Phaedra and Medea are queens, related genetically and therefore both of divine stock. They have power over others in various ways, but this is where the similarities end. Medea recovers her dignity through anger and vengeance via determination and magic; she is bloodied but not beaten. Phaedra is not possessed of magical powers and has to rely on her mortal strength and regal power. She is the victim of Aphrodite’s vengeful curse which renders her neurotic, jealous, vulnerable, defensive and sexually obsessed with her stepson, Hippolyte, who rejected Aphrodite. This fixation, which manifests itself in an outward show of loathing for her unattainable love, while she inwardly burns with an overwhelming sexual desire, is a common enough human expression of courtship…for some! I cite Queen Elizabeth I’s public derision of Leicester or Glenn Close’s obsessing character in Fatal Attraction. 

Phaedra’s nurse Oenone, out of maternal love and impatience with her mistress’s obsession, misguidedly proposes imagined possibilities of a marriage, resulting in a catastrophic misunderstanding. When Phaedra realises the truth---that her love is not reciprocated---the humiliation is crushing and the fallout is calamitous for all.

Phaedra’s story is a morality tale warning those who pursue the unattainable sexual partner of the destruction this can cause. In the end, with Phaedra’s downfall, the audience may feel justice has been done, yet ideally, they will also feel sympathy for her, the point being that (in Pellegrin’s libretto as well as the plays by Racine and Euripides on which it is based), anyone can fall for the wrong person. When Rameau’s Phèdre, in her great final suicidal scena, confesses to the gods that she withheld from Theseus the truth which would have proven his son Hippolytus innocent, she displays enormous conflicting emotions; fear, anger, self-pity and remorse, surely the stock-in-trade of a great tragic heroine!

CE: This Hippolyte marks Glyndebourne’s first foray into French Baroque opera, a style which will be new to many opera operagoers.  What would you say to first-time audiences?

SC: “Aren’t you lucky?!” This may just be the most beautiful music of the 18th century. Rameau and Handel were almost exact contemporaries, but their sound, style and ornamentation, and their characters’ psychological development couldn’t be more different. This is because of the contrasting French and Italian culture and language. Rameau was a master melodist but he exercises this skill sparingly, making each short aria really impactful. Every note is at the service of the word, its meaning and validity, which is not always the case with Handel, whose Italianate style was concerned with expression via melisma and legato. 

I’d also like to share with Glyndebourne’s audience that we are so lucky to experience this music in the masterful hands of Maestro Bill Christie. He plumbs the depths of emotion inherent in Rameau’s musical language, encouraging the most daring expression. Apparently Bill chose his singers this time for what we might bring to our roles not just vocally but personally, so that our characters really arise from something of who we are in some way. That’s really quite scary!

CE: What is your favourite part of Hippolyte et Aricie, the part you most look forward to performing?

SC: There are two great scenes in this opera for my character; Phèdre and Hippolyte’s argument in Act III, which begins with her air “Cruelle mère des Amours’, and Phèdre’s suicide in Act IV, “Quelle plainte en ces lieux m'appelle?’, in which she admits her responsibility for the demise of Hippolyte. Both are equally exciting and brilliantly unpredictable.

CE: Tell us what you like about Glyndebourne’s new production of Hippolyte

SC: Last summer I sang Phèdre in Paris at the Opéra Garnier, but in this production I feel I am starting anew. Jonathan Kent, our director, brings such a clear understanding of the dilemma and yet every step is collaborative. Every word of text is examined along with every motivation. In the Prologue, Diana, the cold goddess of the hunt and of chastity argues with Cupid that humans follow reason, not passion. The drama continues with a hasty exchange of amorous intentions between Hippolyte, an acolyte of Diana, and the captive princess Aricie. Jonathan feels that ultimately their affection for each other is fairly chaste. Ironically, the only real passion is that of Phèdre, which is illicit, white-hot and irrational. The remit of an opening act in a French Baroque opera is to ‘astonish and delight’. Our colourful, larger-than-life Hippolyte et Aricie will certainly do that! 

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