HIPPOLYTE ET ARICIE
Tragédie lyrique in 5 actes and a prologue
Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau
Librettist: Abbé Pellegrin
First performed: Académie Royale de Musique at its theatre in the Palais-Royal, Paris, 1 October 1733
Halte-là! Are you a Ramiste or a Lulliste? And shall we fight a duel?
Those were serious questions in early 18th century France. Society was bitterly divided between those who thought that Lully’s tragedies lyriques (like Cadmus et Hermione and Atys) were the nonpareil of opera – and those who thought, like the young Turk Rameau, that opera was improved by actually having MUSIC in it.
I am, unsurprisingly, a Ramiste (or a Ramoneur; both terms are acceptable).
I first heard Hippolyte et Aricie in July. I have since heard several other Rameau operas, including Dardanus, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes galantes, and Platée.
Let’s not beat about the bush; Rameau is astonishing.
Hippolyte et Aricie gave me the same excitement as when I first heard Meyerbeer and Berlioz.
One must reach for those great names – and Rossini of the Naples period, and the Mighty Handful – to find Rameau’s equal for sheer musical imagination; instrumental colour, and arresting harmony; beauty, power, nobility, and vitality.
A new god has entered my pantheon.
I said “young Turk”; Rameau was 50 when Hippolyte et Aricie premièred. The organist from Dijon was known for his harpsichord pieces, cantatas, and choral motets, and as a formidable theorist.
His Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (1722) and Nouveau système de musique théorique (1726) had given him the reputation of « un théoricien farouche qui ne voyait rien en dehors de la basse fondamentale et de la résonance du corps sonore » (Charles Poisot, Hippolyte et Aricie, Theodore Michaelis, Paris, 1881).
Rameau, though, wanted to write opera. Through his patron, the financier (fermier général) La Poupelinière, Rameau obtained the libretto for Hippolyte from the Abbé Pellegrin.
The story is based on Euripides’ Hippolytus (428 BC), itself the inspiration for Racine’s Phèdre (1677). In the original, Hippolytus, son of Theseus, is a devoted follower of Artemis, chaste goddess of the chase. The offended Aphrodite revenges herself by making Phaedra, Theseus’s wife, fall in love with her stepson. The appalled young man rejects her advances, and Phaedra kills herself. Theseus, believing his son guilty of an incestuous passion, asks his father Poseidon to punish the youth. A sea monster devours Hippolytus, and Theseus learns the truth. The goddess is avenged.
Rameau’s treatment ends more happily. Neptune saves his grandson, who marries Aricie.
“L’indigence poétique est extrême, » Debussy (Le Figaro, 8 May 1908) thought, « mais [il] contient un spectacle varie en divertissements, entrées des bergers, chœurs des prêtresses, chœurs de chasseurs, et toutes espèces de symphonies où pourra s’exercer la prodigieuse invention de Rameau ».
The poetry is extremely poor, but it contains a spectacle rich in divertissements, shepherds’ entries, choruses of priestesses, choruses of hunters, and all sorts of symphonies to display Rameau’s prodigious invention.
For all Debussy’s criticism of the libretto, the opera entertains throughout. One doesn’t have to make allowances for an opera 50 years before Mozart, in the way one does for, say, Handel. Act II (Theseus in the Underworld) and Act III (Phèdre / Hippolyte / Thésée) are dramatically intense. Elsewhere, Rameau finds room for fun (l’Amour’s “Rossignols amoureux”). There is a wealth of choruses, beautiful arias, and the extraordinary, enharmonic Trio des Parques, considered unperformable at the time.
What impressed listeners on the first night, Adolphe Adam (tome IV of the Revue contemporaine) said, was the novelty and surprise of the modulation, the power of the harmony, and the combinations of the new instrumentation.
“Il y a dans cet opéra assez de musique pour en faire dix,” said the composer André Campra; « cet homme nous éclipsera tous. »
There is enough music in this opera to make ten; this man will eclipse us all.
Voltaire hailed him as the greatest musician in France, “our Euclid-Orpheus”.
Others thought there was too much music, too much harmony, too much learning, too much everything. It was, in a word, baroque.
From the performance of Hippolyte, ‘two violently extreme parties were to be found in France, enraged against each other; the older and the newer music was for each of them a kind of religion for which they took up arms’. On the side of Lully were the elderly and the unprofessional; only a few musicians like Mouret joined them, more out of jealousy of the rising star than from devotion to Baptiste. Theorists like Père André, author of an Essai sur le Beau and Abbé Pluche, of Le Spectacle de la Nature fame, were also among the conservative.
(Cuthbert Girdlestone, Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Works, 1957, revised 1969)
Rameau himself, thought Lasserre (The Spirit of French Music, trans. Turner, 1921), had no intention of overthrowing his Italian predecessor.
Far from seeking to dethrone the Florentine, he proclaimed him, and with justice, his master and guide. His art, compared with Lulli’s, had nothing revolutionary about it; it was a continuation of Lulli. It was the art of Lulli with a very great advance in musical richness, variety, suppleness and colour. It was the musical tragedy of Lulli resumed by an artist who joined to a poetic genius at least as fine and an equally lofty sense of expression, the advantage of being a greater musician and far more fertile in resource. People were not used to this copiousness of invention, all this magnificent stream of music ; at first the ears of theatre-goers were stunned and bewildered by them. But they soon recovered, and Rameau had his devoted admirers.
Poisot, on the other hand, believes that Rameau abandoned Lully’s old system.
Il faisait faire des rentrées aux flûtes, aux hautbois, aux bassons, sans interrompre le jeu de la symphonie ; il donnait à chaque instrument une partie indépendante et distincte ; il assignait à chacun un rôle tout spécial, faisant en un mot l’essai de ce qui s’est constamment pratiqué depuis. Rameau est donc le père de l’instrumentation moderne, et il a joué à son époque le rôle que Berlioz and Wagner jouent dans la nôtre. C’était un novateur puissant.
He made the flutes, oboes, and bassoons play without interrupting the symphony; he gave each instrument an independent and distinctive part; he assigned each of them a very special role, in a word, essaying what has been constantly practiced since. Rameau is therefore the father of modern instrumentation, and he played in his time the role that Berlioz and Wagner played in ours. He was a powerful innovator.
Rameau’s operas disappeared by the 19th century, but were rediscovered at the turn of the last century. Debussy considered him a truly French musician: clear, truthful, witty, and beautiful; while Lasserre thought his “the most richly and nobly harmonized music that our soil has produced”.
Works such as Rameau’s belong not merely to the history of Music. It has its place in the general history of Taste, in the history of Civilization. Considered from this point of view, the author of Castor [et Pollux] appears to us as one of the most imposing figures in art that France has ever produced.
- Diane (soprano): Mlle Eremans
- L’Amour (haute-contre): Pierre Jélyotte
- Jupiter (bass): Jean Dun “fils”
- Nymphes de Diane, habitans de la forêt d’Erymante. Suite de l’Amour.
- Thésée (bass): Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais
- Phèdre (soprano): Marie Antier
- Hippolyte (haute-contre): Denis-François Tribou
- Aricie (soprano): Marie Pélissier
- Œnone, Phèdre’s confidante (soprano): Mlle Monville
- Pluton (bass): Jean Dun “fils”
- Les trois Parques (bass, taille, haute-contre): Cuignier, Cuvilliers, Jéliotte
- Arcas, friend to Thésée (taille): Louis-Antoine Cuvilliers
- La Grande-Prêtresse de Diane (soprano): Mlle Petitpas
- Tisyphone (taille): Louis-Antoine Cuvilliers
- Mercure (taille): Dumast
- Une bergère (soprano): Mlle Petitpas
- Une matelote (soprano): Mlle Petitpas
- Une chasseresse (soprano): Mlle Petitpas
Trezène, the Underworld, and in Aricie’s forest
Based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, 2003, and Wikipedia
The Forest of Erymanthus
The goddess Diane rules over the Forest of Erymanthus, but l’Amour also wants to rule over the forest dwellers. Jupiter decrees that Cupid will reign for one day a year. Diane vows to look after Hippolyte and Aricie.
The temple of Diane in Troezen
Aricie, last survivor of a people conquered by Thésée, comes to pray at Diana’s temple. Thésée has forced where she will become a sacred priestess. Nevertheless, she is in love with Hippolyte, Thésée’s son.
Hippolyte declares his own love, and urges her to renounce her vows. Phèdre, however, holds Aricie’s fate in her hands. The two lovers pray to Diana. The priestesses of Diana, then Phèdre arrive; all is ready for the ceremony. At the last moment, however, Aricie declares that she is forced to make her vows, which the goddess will not accept. When Hippolyte backs her up, Phèdre suspects they are lovers. She threatens to destroy the temple. The priestesses invoke Diane, who descends from heaven to protect Hippolyte and Aricie. Phèdre swears to avenge herself – because she, too, loves Hippolyte. Arcas announces that Thésée has just descended into the underworld, to follow his friend Pirithoüs. (Pirithoüs tried to seduce Proserpina.) Because the king is dead, Œnone urges Phèdre to declare her love.
Hades, the Underworld
The Fury Tisiphone brings the unhappy Thésée to the depths of the underworld. The king of Athens wants to exchange his life for that of Pirithoüs. Pluton, accompanied by three Parcae (Fates), appears; he is inflexible, and condemns Thésée to share his friend’s fate. He summons all the horrors of hell to try him.
Thésée is found guilty, and condemned to remain a prisoner in the Underworld. He asks his father, Neptune, to rescue him. (Neptune had promised to help him three times. The first time, he opened the gates of the Underworld.) Mercure, in the name of Neptune, intercedes for Thésée, and Pluton releases him. In an extraordinary trio, the Fates warn Thésée: he leaves the Underworld to find Hell at home.
The Trio, Poisot wrote, “has a stamp of grandiose and sombre majesty, worthy to rival the most beautiful inspirations of the masters of all the epochs. The enharmonic passage: ‘Où vas-tu, malheureux?’ is of an extraordinary boldness and a sublime effect.”
Thésée’s palace by the sea
Phèdre implores Venus to grant her Hippolyte’s love, in the exquisite aria “Cruelle mère des amours”.
Hippolyte offers his condolences on her bereavement. Mistaking his concern for love, Phèdre confesses her passion. Hippolyte is shocked, and curses her. Phèdre tries to kill herself with a sword, but Hippolyte snatches it from her. At this moment, Thésée arrives unexpectedly. He is unsure what to make of the scene, but fears Hippolyte was trying to rape his wife. Phèdre rushes off, and Hippolyte nobly refuses to denounce his stepmother. But this only serves to increase his father’s suspicions, now reinforced by Phèdre’s confidante, Œnone.
In a dramatic masterstroke, the anguished Thésée must endure the Trézéniens’ joyous celebrations at his return.
Thésée finally decides to use his last prayer to Neptune to punish Hippolyte. This is a remarkable scene: largely declamation, over the orchestra (depicting the foaming waves) – but it’s psychologically penetrating. We’re light years beyond Lully, in the mixture of orchestral imagination and drama. This is great opera, full stop.
A grove sacred to Diane, by the sea
Banished by Thésée, Hippolyte laments his fate. Aricie fears that, when he is gone, Phèdre will take her revenge; she vows to go with him as his wife. A hunting party celebrates the goddess.
A terible storm interrupts their rejoicing. A monster suddenly emerges from the sea – the instrument of Thésée’s punishment. Hippolyte tries to fight it, but disappears in a cloud of flames. Phèdre arrives, distraught, and admits she is the cause of Hippolyte’s death.
This is another scene that earns the opera its five stars; Rameau’s characters have a life and depth that Lully’s cardboard doesn’t.
A grove sacred to Diana, by the sea
Thésée has learnt the truth from Phèdre, just before she killed herself. Full of remorse, he too threatens suicide but Neptune reveals that his son is still alive, thanks to Diane’s protection. However, Thésée will never see him again.
The forest of Aricia, Italy
Aricie wakes up, still mourning Hippolyte, in an enchanted place. It is the forest that bears her name, and where she will reign forever. Diane tells her she has found a husband for the girl, but Aricie is inconsolable until the goddess reveals Hippolyte, alive and well. The opera ends with general rejoicing.
- Stéphane Degout (Thésée), Sarah Connolly (Phèdre), Topi Lehtipuu (Hippolyte), and Anne Catherine Gillet (Aricie), with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting Le Concert d’Astrée, Paris, 2014. Erato.
- Russell Smythe (Thésée), Bernarda Fink (Phèdre), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Hippolyte), and Véronique Gens (Aricie), with Marc Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre. Paris, 1994. Deutsche Grammophon.
- Laurent Naouri (Thésée), Lorraine Hunt (Phèdre), Mark Padmore (Hippolyte), and Anna Maria Panzarella (Aricie), with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants. Erato, 1997.