sat 22/10/2016

theartsdesk Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly | Opera reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly

Britain's finest mezzo talks tragedy, comedy and French baroque

Sarah Connolly: exploring beyond the usual mezzo roles of witches, bitches and britches

It may have taken Sarah Connolly a decade or two, a detour to choral singing and a serious flirtation with jazz, but the British mezzo-soprano has most definitely arrived at full-blown National Treasure status. Perhaps it was her career-changing Xerxes in Nicholas Hytner’s 1998 Xerxes for English National Opera that marked the start of her reign, perhaps her 2005 Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne. But either way a starring appearance at the Last Night of the Proms in 2009, a CBE the following year and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award just last month, all proclaim her the undisputed queen of the UK’s opera scene.

With repertoire ranging across centuries, extending from Handel to Wagner and Turnage, Connolly’s reach has stretched far beyond the traditionally restricted roles of “witches, bitches and britches” usually assigned to mezzos. Seizing back the best heroic Handelian roles from the countertenors, Connolly has also taken unusual control of her career, eschewing the conventional relationship with a record company in favour of masterminding her own independent projects.

Although accustomed to wearing the trousers both on and off stage, this week Connolly will trade those in for a rare return to skirts as the doomed Phèdre in a new production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne. She talks tragedy with theartsdesk, debunks the mystery of French Baroque, and explains just what it would take to get her back into contemporary opera.

ALEXANDRA COGHLAN: French baroque opera is something of a rarity in the UK. How did Hippolyte et Aricie end up on the Glyndebourne schedule?

SARAH CONNOLLY: I think the first suggestion of doing some French baroque came years ago after Simon Rattle had such success with Les Boréades. More recently it was suggested that William Christie do either Hippolyte or Médée, and eventually it was decided that Hippolyte would be the more appealing for an audience and easier to appreciate. Unlike Médée the performance doesn’t depend on one person but is much more collaborative. The music is evenly distributed between the four main characters and it just felt like the right fit for Glyndebourne. Musically it really is the most wonderful opera – it really does “astonish and delight” as the mission statement of the French baroque has it.

And what about the production, can we expect charm and delight from that too?

Paul Brown and Jonathan Kent have devised an extraordinary show encompassing references to the 18th century and earlier as well as a contemporary element. The far less relatable, far less familiar figures of the gods with their intrigues and curses will be in 18th-century costumes, while the mortals who have to get the story across and who have all the recognisably human dilemmas and difficulties are in contemporary costumes. The idea is that the audience will be able to see themselves in the mortal characters. The dilemmas they face are age-old, are problems that we all understand – particularly the central dilemma which is Phèdre’s uncontrollable lust and craving.

Do you find truthful human psychology in Rameau’s Phèdre?

Yes, and particularly in the way that Rameau and Pellegrin have paced the drama. The two of them have worked like Hofmannsthal and Strauss to create this synthesis between words and music that is absolutely fantastic – an instinctive expression of the story. We’re back to the Capriccio question here of which comes first, the music or the words? It’s extraordinary how this piece seems to flow. I’ve really studied the Racine play and while there are slight differences to the way the story is delivered, particularly the famous scene between Hippolyte and Phèdre where she declares her love for him, it really does work as a piece of drama and we’re trying to perform it like a play. Everything is very naturalistic – we’re in contemporary clothes, playing in a contemporary house – saying to the audience that this is normal; this could happen to you.

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