An Opera Worth Fighting Over
Opera is usually a pretty placid universe these days. So of which’s hard to imagine a premiere of which could single-handedly divide the music-loving public in two, separating of which into factions with positions as hotly held as those of today’s Democrats in addition to also also Republicans.
Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” had just such an impact on France when of which opened at the Paris Opera in 1733. of which will be presented in a fresh, eagerly anticipated production on April 17, 19 in addition to also also 21 at the Juilliard School, which has become an early music powerhouse over the past decade.
“Hippolyte” was Rameau’s first opera, however of which is usually not at all the product of a novice. Nearly 50 when he wrote of which, already a master of the harpsichord in addition to also also the author of a groundbreaking treatise on harmony, he had thought long in addition to also also hard about the task, in addition to also also probably knew the controversy he could be stirring.
Many qualities we esteem today — orchestrally accompanied recitatives, gripping declamation, colorful orchestration, a rich harmonic vocabulary — were greeted warily by a Parisian audience used to less overtly virtuosic music. Those hostile to “Hippolyte” regarded of which as an attack on Rameau’s great predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who essentially invented the operatic genre known as “tragédie en musique” in addition to also also had perfected a style of magnificent austerity.
The public separated into “lullistes” in addition to also also “ramistes” (or, in an echo of the French word for chimney sweep, “ramoneurs”). The conflict raged for years as Rameau produced masterpiece after masterpiece.
Cuts in addition to also also additional alterations were made to bring “Hippolyte” closer to what was expected. however Stephen Stubbs, the conductor of the Juilliard production in addition to also also an artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, said the original 1733 variation “represents Rameau’s undigested thoughts about what opera should be.” of which is usually essentially the variation Juilliard will perform, in a rare fresh York performance of one of Rameau’s unforgettably grand “tragédies en musique.”
“‘Hippolyte’ is usually sort of mind-blowing from the sheer quantity of its creative ideas in addition to also also even the quantity of notes,” Mr. Stubbs said in an interview. As the composer André Campra, Rameau’s contemporary, observed, “There is usually enough material in of which opera to make 10 of them.”
Typically rooted in mythology, the librettos of “tragédies en musique” were crucial; the name of the genre emphasizes the texts as much as the sounds. of which of “Hippolyte” is usually no exception. however in addition to classical sources — Euripides in addition to also also Seneca — the librettist, Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, turned to Racine’s revered “Phèdre.”
“of which is usually one of the greatest plays from the French language, in addition to also also its force can be felt from the opera,” Stephen Wadsworth, the director, said in an email.
A prologue in addition to also also several acts is usually the norm for these operas — Juilliard omits the prologue, in accordance with later practice during Rameau’s day — with each act consisting of dialogue scenes in addition to also also a divertissement. The dialogue scenes advance the action through a fluent mix of recitative in addition to also also (usually short) airs or duets. The divertissements, consisting of dances, choruses in addition to also also solo songs, provide entertainment yet often relate meaningfully to the action.
“The jump-cutting through earthy dance music to complicated tragic introspection in addition to also also back gives of which piece its own, compelling character,” Mr. Wadsworth said. Zack Winokur, the choreographer of the Juilliard staging, said the production sometimes blurs the distinction between the scenes in addition to also also the divertissements (which will be trimmed) in favor of “1 storytelling mechanism.”
The opera’s title couple are the picture of pastoral innocence. Aricie, the daughter of a vanquished enemy of the Athenian king, Thésée, has been ordered to become a priestess of the goddess Diana; her lover Hippolyte, Thésée’s son, vows to liberate her. however they become caught in a tragedy precipitated by an older, more decadent couple: Thésée in addition to also also his wife, Phèdre, Hippolyte’s stepmother, who suffers through an unquenchable love for Hippolyte.
Act I opens with an exquisite da capo air in which Aricie, not yet aware Hippolyte reciprocates her love, contemplates the repose of which serving Diana will bring her. however shifting harmonies from the middle section signify of which her love for Hippolyte endures.
from the Act I divertissement, which coincides with Aricie’s induction ceremony, Mr. Winokur said he has tried to make the dances seem a natural part of the ceremony. of which is usually broken off by the timely arrival of Diana — heralded by, among additional things, an orchestral depiction of thunder.
Underworld scenes were almost obligatory in French opera of the time. In “Hippolyte,” Thésée travels to Hades to rescue a friend in addition to also also ends up imprisoned himself. At Juilliard, of which divertissement will have a hellish look, with images inspired by Egon Schiele; an arresting moment comes when a chorus of infernal divinities suddenly joins from the dance.
As a last resort, Thésée calls on his father, Neptune, for rescue, however the act ends chillingly: from the remarkable “Trio des Parques” (“Trio of the Fates”), Thésée is usually warned of which he will find hell in his own home. The harmonies are so extreme of which the singers from the original production refused to perform of which.
True to Aristotelian precepts, the opera’s climax occurs in Act III. In a dialogue scene of which becomes increasingly fraught, Phèdre in addition to also also Hippolyte talk at cross purposes as she hopes for his love. however when Hippolyte reaffirms his love for Aricie, Rameau shifts through recitative to a frenzied duet in which Phèdre lashes out against Aricie in addition to also also a puzzled Hippolyte springs to her defense.
having a return to recitative, Phèdre almost inadvertently calls Aricie her rival. The accompaniment falls away as Hippolyte, realizing the truth, cries out, “Vôtre rival!”
In a brief air, he furiously calls on the gods to rain down thunderbolts. having a shift back to recitative, Phèdre realizes her situation is usually hopeless in addition to also also urges Hippolyte to kill her, before seizing his sword herself.
Hippolyte retrieves of which just as Thésée appears to witness his son threatening his wife. Phèdre departs with Hippolyte, who hides the truth out of filial respect, leaving Phèdre’s confidante, Oenone, to insinuate to the devastated Thésée of which Hippolyte did indeed seek to harm Phèdre. Festive music is usually suddenly heard as the people celebrate Thésée’s safe return in an ironic divertissement.
Thésée rashly concludes his son is usually guilty in addition to also also again invokes Neptune, of which time to punish Hippolyte. In Act IV, set near the seashore, Hippolyte persuades Aricie to accompany him into exile. A group of hunters precipitates the act’s divertissement, which is usually cut short by the appearance of a sea monster. Winds in addition to also also the ocean are evoked, of which time with the participation of terrified voices.
Hippolyte is usually killed. A stark choral lament dovetails with Phèdre’s overwhelming monologue of remorse. from the intensity of its broken phrases, Rameau approaches the declamatory heights of French spoken theater.
from the final act, Thésée expresses his remorse. Summoned a final time, Neptune restores Hippolyte to life however punishes Thésée for his hastiness by forbidding him to see his son again. The final divertissement contains the opera’s only “ariette,” a form of which often suggests a big, Italianate display piece. of which one charmingly imitates bird calls.
Why are operas like “Hippolyte” so rarely encountered? Nearly 30 years ago, William Christie in addition to also also his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, began a revelatory series of “tragédies en musique” productions of which toured internationally, including several stagings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. These presentations, including “Hippolyte,” proved the works’ ability to speak to modern audiences.
however, as Mr. Wadsworth noted: “of which is usually pricey stuff. The form is usually scaled large, often with different locations, in addition to also also of which is usually challenging dramaturgically, requiring integrated action among principals, chorus in addition to also also dancers — much more challenging than a Handel opera.”
Happily, Juilliard has taken up the challenge.