Sarah Connolly, Victim of a divine spell
Une des grandes voix du répertoire lyrique se confie à Pluris.
“Queen Phaedra, that’s me!“, Sarah Connolly claims. “She has a passionate temper, we are of the same age, and I imagine she looks physically quite like me.“ One of the most acclaimed English mezzo soprano, Connolly already has a rich and diversified repertoire, from Bach and Pergolese to contemporary Benjamin Britten, and she played men and teenagers in baroque operas by Haendel and Monteverdi. In 2012 she played Phaedra at the Opéra Garnier in the magnificent opera Hippolyte et Aricie, a lyric tragedy by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.
At the heart of this illustrious Greek myth, is Phaedra's passion for her stepson Hippolytus, the son of her husband King Theseus. But Hippolytus is in love with Princess Aricia. Hence the impossible fulfilment of Phaedra’s love. Consumed by jealousy and guilt, as if the gods had cast a spell on her, she dies. Sarah Connolly explains how she embodied this mythical queen on stage for the first time.
Pluris – How did you prepare to play Phaedra?
Sarah Connolly – First of all I tried to understand the characteristics that everybody understands, like falling in love with someone you shouldn’t, someone younger. Nothing wrong with that, but maybe not your husband’s son! That’s not a terrible crime, that’s just life. But Phaedra believes it’s a crime, and that angry gods are punishing her for her incestry. She seems endowed with a sense of telepathy, she has a real understanding, which is why she is seen as guilty. It is not a mortal guilt, she hasn’t done anything wrong, but still she is consumed by guilt and the feeling of immorality. As a performer my job is to describe all the nuances of her neurosis.
Phaedra’s passionate temper is so strong that it seems at times superhuman. Do you perceive her as a kind of demigoddess?
No! Phaedra is definitely a human being to me, but she lives in some fantasy, some sort of elevated middle world between heaven and earth. In this wishful dreamworld, she’s kidding herself, and nobody can communicate with her. This is the point I wish to speak with the audience, and the gods are the audience too! I want to share with them the experience of a woman who lives in her head, and who is not like every women: it’s too painful for her to live in reality.
Phaedra’s character belongs to the Greek mythology revisited by 18th century classical theatre. Isn’t it a bit old fashioned?
I wouldn’t play Phaedra if she was old-fashioned! My raison d’être as a performer is to make all my characters live today, even though the period costume may be a barrier. This is why I’m trying very much to make my music conversational, punctuating the phrases with silences. If I had to relate Phaedra to a contemporary character, I would choose Bette Davis, in the movie All about Eve: she shows a strong vulnerability to her maid, and I like the lovely relationship between those two women.
What do you mean by making your music “conversational“?
I’d like to make Phaedra accessible and understandable by everybody. So I try to engage the audience in a conversation, because sharing is key to keep the audience involved: “Listen to me, I’m going to tell you a story, a true story that is happening right now.“ I want to challenge the audience, for example when Phaedra sings: “Par cet espoir flatteur tu prolonges mes jours“ (You extend my days with this flattering hope). People know this feeling of hope, and I want to weave a relationship with them over the orchestra pit.
Can you tell me about an enchanting experience of yours on stage?
I remember the duets in Les Troyens (The Trojans), a beautiful opera by Hector Berlioz, in a production by Richard Jones at the English National Opera. I was playing Didon, the legendary queen of Carthage. We were standing on a raised plateau. All the stars appeared above, and I was just looking at them. The music and the lyrics are very difficult, with a sort of double entendre, “Je ne vous verrai plus, ma carrière est finie“ (I will never see you again, for my career is finished). But somehow looking at these twinkling stars was so inspiring, that I really immersed myself in who this woman is. I stopped worrying about music and put myself as Didon. It was a pure, ethereal moment.