Phaedra at the Kimmel Center

June 6, 2011

Of all the various performance arts, opera is by far my favorite. My love of opera began in college when my French teacher took me and my classmates to see Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. There was something magical and inspiring about the rich voices, brilliant costumes, and lively orchestra. I went to another opera, Don Giovanni, while living in Toronto for grad school. So for the last several years I have been hinting rather heavily to my husband that opera tickets would make a great gift forĀ  _______ (insert Christmas, my birthday, Valentine’s Day, just because here). Last Christmas he finally got the hint and got me opera tickets as belated wedding/Christmas gift. The catch…the opera wasn’t until June. After my initial excitement, I eventually forgot (5 months is a long time!). But last Friday, opera night arrived at last and I will tell you, it did not disappoint.

The reason for the long delay between getting the tickets and actually seeing the opera was that my husband did some research and wanted to choose a show he could actually get into. It was his first opera, after all, and he did not want to hate it. He settled on a relatively new opera, Phaedra, which premiered in Germany in 2007. The show is based on the Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, something my husband read in high school and very much enjoyed. June 3 was the American premiere of Phaedra and so we waited. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised by it. But I will also say that it was quite different from the other operas I have seen.

The show, written by German composer Hans Werner Henze, sticks close to the original Greek myth for the first act, but takes significant poetic license in the second act and utilizes extremely modern set designs throughout the show. The entire stage is designed to visually awe the audience and to emphasis the emotional and comedic elements of the songs.

Color was undoubtedly the most important aspect of the set and costume design. The backdrop, which was made of a large white screen grid onto which various images were digitally projected, almost exclusively featured black and white images. Trees, roads, leaves, always in black and white except for a few choice moments marked by bold primary colors. At one point, when young Hippolytus dies, the tree in the background begins to bleed bright red, replacing the need for Hippolytus to actually bleed.

The costumes, too, were mostly shades of black and white, with shots of red and green thrown in for effect. Phaedra, the confused and desperate mother, transitions through a series of cleverly designed costumes using only black, nude, and red. The evolution, or perhaps de-volution, of her character is identified through her clothing. She begins in a black tunic with a red drape over her shoulders. As she throws herself at Hippolytus, she appears totally nude (done through a clever costume of transparent fabric and a Madonna-like spiral bra) and again uses her red drape to conceal herself. In the second act Phaedra appears primarily in black, a nod to her descent into the afterlife, but dons a pair of long red gloves when she attempts to seduce Hippolytus for a second time.

Hippolytus and the gods (Aphrodite and Artemis), by contrast, wear mostly white and gold. For Hippolytus, it coincides with his innocence, while it hints at the heavenly status of the gods. The lighting helps change the hue of their clothing depending on the action of each scene, sometimes highlighting the whites and other times the yellow/golds. Blue light is also used sporadically to coincide with confusion and unrest and bright yellow light appears at the end when Hippolytus is finally free of Phaedra and Aphrodite.

At one point, when Artemis* (played by formidable countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo) is bringing Hippolytus back to life, a montage of contemporary images is thrown onto the backdrop screen. Some of the images, including a cell phone and a table saw, relate directly the song Artemis sings. Another series of images remind the audience of World War II Nazi Germany, a nod to the composer’s childhood spent in the Hitler youth. In a very clever way, Henze brings together troubles from his own past and makes them relevant to the turmoil in his characters’ lives. It was one of several moments when the audience audibly gasped at what they saw on stage.

While Phaedra is not the classical opera I fell in love with, I was most impressed with it for the new direction it is moving opera into. Well worth the five month wait. And I think my husband enjoyed it too, so maybe another opera is not so far away!

*Although Artemis is a female god, the role was played by a very small but powerful male singer. I do not know if the role was written to be played by a man or if it was the director’s choice, but it made the performance unusual.

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