Magnificent Phaedra

Sarah Connolly (C)Peter Warren

Sarah Connolly (C) Peter Warren

I’m writing this on the train on my way home from my annual reviewing trip to the BBC Proms. In a fit of madness, I volunteered to review three Proms in three days and I heard two fine Scottish orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall: the RNSO playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Tannhäuser (follow the links to read my reviews). The highlight of the weekend, possibly even of my reviewing year, was undoubtedly a magnificent Saturday matinée at Cadogan Hall by the Britten Sinfonia, with mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. I don’t normally run up against the word limit when I’m reviewing, but in this case I found I didn’t have enough space for all my thoughts about Britten’s Phaedra, particularly as I also wanted to do justice to Lennox Berkeley’s little-heard Four poems of St Teresa of Avila. So, more thoughts.

Phaedra was Britten’s last vocal work, written in 1975, and its text comes from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s tragedy – which in itself, of course, comes from Greek mythology. Phaedra is married to Theseus, falls in love with his son Hippolytus, (who in turn loves someone he shouldn’t, and doesn’t love Phaedra); it gets complicated and after plenty of death and destruction, Phaedra takes poison. Britten condenses this into a monologue by Phaedra, for mezzo solo and orchestra, and structures it like a Baroque secular cantata: there’s a prologue in which she looks back to the sunny May morning of her wedding, when she first saw Hippolytus; then arias and recitatives addressed to Hippolytus, to her confidante Oenone, and finally, as she dies, to Theseus. The orchestration even includes a harpsichord and cello continuo section, and the subject matter itself is typical of the Baroque era – indeed Sarah Connolly is currently playing the same role at Glyndebourne in Rameau’s operatic version of the same story, Hippolyte et Aricie. (catch the Guardian’s live stream here until the end of August). She said in her on-stage interview for BBC Radio 3 that this made singing Britten’s Phaedra a particular treat as she already feels she’s with the character all the time, and doesn’t have to think herself into the part: the fact that she’d been allowed to borrow the splendid red dress she wears for the role at Glyndebourne must have helped too.

As I expected, Connolly was magnificent, and terrifying, but also very human. Phaedra is not a remote princess, or an all-powerful goddess, she’s a real woman who recognises that her passion is horribly wrong, and that no good can possibly come of it, but she abandons herself to it, regardless of the consequences. Her declaration of love for Hippolyte was a wail of shame, but the final aria, when she has already taken poison and has nothing left to lose, was all defiant passion – I was transfixed with the force of Connolly’s singing and her steely expression, but what really made it special was the way she pulled back with such control at the end of each phrase in this last aria; sighing, dying.

Britten’s orchestral writing brilliantly comments on Phaedra’s story. The hot May morning of the opening is vividly evoked with shimmering, brittle strings, and the harpsichord adds a decidedly sinister note which builds to agony during the recitative addressed to Oenone.  There are tritones aplenty, and in her interview Connolly talked about the connections she sees between this and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which also dies away on a sustained double-bass C.

Knowing that this was written when Britten too was dying tempted me to read more into it beyond Phaedra’s story; I’ve heard so much this year about Britten putting himself into his music, and only ever writing from the heart, but if that’s true then the ending of Phaedra is horribly sad. The last words are:

My eyes at last give up their light, and see
the day they’ve soiled resume its purity.

And then, as the singer’s voice dies away, there is a brief return of opening music for the beautiful May morning, returning to the purity before Phaedra ruined it all with her tragic love.

You can read about the rest of the concert here in my Bachtrack review. By a massive stroke of good fortune, I’m reviewing Sarah Connolly again at a concert she’s putting on in Gloucester Cathedral at the beginning of September – can’t wait!

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