Rameau's Last Tango: 'Hippolyte Et Aricie'

From The Capitole Of Toulouse

When Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Hippolyte et Aricie first appeared, it caused vehement confrontations on the streets of Paris. By now, it's hard for us to grasp why that happened; heard today, the opera is beautiful and moving, but it hardly sounds scandalous.

THE HIT SINGLE

To end Act Four, Phaedra (mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy) finally admits her love for Hippolytus, in a highly emotional lament that's one of the opera's most famous numbers.

Phaedra's Lament

3 min 55 sec
 

THE B SIDE

When Theseus is allowed to leave Hades, in Act Two, three Fates warn him that things may be even more hellish when he gets home.

Phaedra's Lament

2 min 54 sec
 
"Hippolyte et Aricie" in Toulouse i i

The goddess Diana (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway) emerges from the clouds in the Toulouse production of Rameau's opera. Patrice Nin hide caption

itoggle caption Patrice Nin
"Hippolyte et Aricie" in Toulouse

The goddess Diana (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway) emerges from the clouds in the Toulouse production of Rameau's opera.

Patrice Nin

Still, it's easy to find more recent examples of dramatic art that have prompted similar reactions — and for many of the same reasons Rameau's work created a stir back in 1733.

When director Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was released in 1976, it produced a tectonic divide among movie buffs and critics. Many called it simple pornography. There was a report claiming that, at one screening, it caused "vomiting by well-dressed wives." On the other hand, the highly respected critic Pauline Kael praised the film as a work that "altered the face of an art form."

The controversy wasn't necessarily over the movie's unusually graphic visual content, though that was part of it. It was more about the overt portrayal of raw emotions and desires that are nearly always kept well under wraps, both at the movies and in real life. Bertolucci put them front and center — with an exclamation point — and created an uproar. So, however you might feel about the film, Kael may have had it exactly right. When an artist genuinely alters an established art form, many will find the new territory deeply disturbing.

That's what happened to Rameau in 1733, and in more ways than one. He didn't feature any graphic sexuality in his opera, as Bertolucci did in Last Tango, but Rameau did other things that some in his audience found just as objectionable. When the story called for roiling seas and roaring winds, he actually depicted them in the orchestra, with scrambling strings, rumbling drums and a howling wind machine. Traditionalists found it excessive and unseemly.

And to those with conservative ears, Rameau did something even more offensive. The opera's story has a strong current of erotic obsession, and even incestuous lust, running barely below the surface. The composer gave that undercurrent a starring role, using radical forms and harmonies to create music with a raw passion that's at least a match for his characters' darkest and most forbidden desires. Opera audiences had come to expect works we might compare to today's elaborate, wide-screen costume epics. Rameau gave them intense, art-house psychodramas.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie — the last tango of 18th century Paris — in a lush production from the Capitole of Toulouse. It's led by the exciting young conductor Emmanuelle Haim, with the orchestra and chorus of the Concert d'Astree.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story Of 'Hippolyte Et Aricie'

Though the music of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie was considered revolutionary, the opera does use the basic layout that was traditional in France at the time: a prologue followed by five acts.

WHO'S WHO?

  • Frederic Antoun* ........ Hippolytus
  • Anne-Catherine Gillet .... Aricia
  • Allyson McHardy ........ Phaedra
  • Stephane Degout ..... Theseus
  • Jennifer Holloway ........ Diana
  • Francoise Masset ....... Oenone
  • Francis Lis .......... Pluto/Jupiter
  • Jael Azzaretti .............. Cupid
  • Bruno Calucci ........... Mercury
  • Sam Nicholas Mulroy ... 1st Fate
  • Nicolas Letilleux ......... 2nd Fate
  • Jerome Varnier ... Neptune/3rd Fate
  • Orchestra and Chorus of Concert d'Astree
  • Emmanuelle Haim, conductor
  • *PLEASE NOTE: Due to a last-minute cast change, the World of Opera broadcast of Hippolyte et Aricie identifies the singer in the role of Hippolytus incorrectly. The role was performed by tenor Frederic Antoun.
"Hippolyte et Aricie" in Toulouse

Diana (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway) descends to greet her virtuous followers in the Toulouse production of Rameau's opera. Patrice Nin hide caption

itoggle caption Patrice Nin

The opera's main characters are all taken from classic Greek mythology. Hippolyte, or Hippolytus, is the son of Theseus, the legendary founding king of Athens and the stepson of Phaedra, Theseus' second wife. Hippolytus is in love with the other title character, Aricie — or Aricia. Theseus has taken her captive, and she and Hippolytus have fallen in love.

The PROLOGUE is an allegorical scene, set in the forest realm of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Befitting Diana's chaste reputation, she is surrounded by young men and women who live there without the complications of romance and passion. Cupid doesn't much like all this chastity, and his licentious attitude puts him at odds with Diana. The god Jupiter intervenes, saying Cupid can prevail for one day each year. Diana agrees but vows to protect the virtuous lovers Hippolytus and Aricia from any untoward interference.

ACT ONE takes place at the Temple of Diana in Athens. Aricia has been ordered to take vows of chastity, but she and Hippolytus have already fallen in love, and she objects. Theseus, the king, is nowhere to be found. But Phaedra is there, determined to see that Aricia stays virtuous. And she has an ulterior motive: jealousy. Phaedra is also in love with Hippolytus, her own stepson.

When Aricia continues to resist taking the vows, Phaedra threatens to have the temple destroyed. At that, the goddess Diana herself appears. She orders Phaedra to stand down and reaffirms her promise to protect Hippolytus and Aricia.

Phaedra then learns that Theseus has been seen disappearing into the underworld. At first, Phaedra is despondent. Then her confidante Oenone reminds her that with Theseus in Hades, Phaedra is technically a widow, free to act on her love for Hippolytus.

For ACT TWO, the action moves to Hades. Theseus has descended to the realm of Pluto to rescue a friend who foolishly tried to abduct Pluto's wife Persephone and was captured. At first, Theseus is stopped by Tisiphone, a fury. But eventually he winds up in Pluto's court. Pluto decides that both Theseus and his foolhardy friend should suffer. But Theseus has a trump card — he's actually the son of the sea god Neptune, who has sworn to assist him. When Pluto objects to this, the god Mercury takes Neptune's side, and Theseus is released. But in a famous trio, the three fates warn him that while he may be leaving Hades, things will be even more hellish when he gets home.

ACT THREE takes place at Theseus' palace by the sea. The king is still away, and Phaedra has decided to reveal her love for Hippolytus. Previously, she had supported one of her own sons as the rightful heir to the throne of Athens. Now she summons Hippolytus and offers him "throne, son ... and mother."

When the virtuous Hippolytus doesn't fully understand what she's getting at, Phaedra makes it clear that she wants him for herself. Hippolytus finds this appalling and prays for the gods to punish her. Phaedra realizes her love is hopeless and urges Hippolytus to draw his sword and kill her. When he refuses, she grabs the sword, and he struggles to take it back.

Naturally, just then, Theseus shows up. He's back from Hades to reclaim his kingdom — and his wife. He thinks Hippolytus is assaulting Phaedra. The opposite is true, but Hippolytus is too much the gentleman to say so. They're interrupted when citizens arrive to thank Neptune for the king's safe return.

A celebration begins, but while there's singing and dancing all around him, Theseus is seething. He's convinced that his own son was trying to steal his wife, and he appeals to Neptune to punish Hippolytus. As the act ends, the sea boils — a sign that Neptune has heard the prayer.

In ACT FOUR, Hippolytus is in the grove of Diana. He decides that he can't tell his father what really happened. He has gone into exile and wants Aricia to join him.

Hunters begin a tribute to Diana, but the proceedings are disrupted by an enormous sea monster, which drags Hippolytus into the ocean. Aricia is carried off in a faint, and it seems Hippolytus is dead.

As the onlookers mourn, Phaedra begins a lament of her own — one of the opera's most remarkable and expressive passages. As she confesses her guilt and her love for Hippolytus, Phaedra's emotions are starkly evoked by the orchestra in music that also depicts thunder and earthquakes.

ACT FIVE begins in Diana's grove by the sea. Phaedra has died, and on her deathbed she told Theseus what actually happened between her and Hippolytus. Hearing this, Theseus is about to kill himself when Neptune brings news that Diana has saved Hippolytus from the sea monster. But the gods have decided that Theseus must be punished for falsely assuming that his son betrayed him, and that he can never see Hippolytus again.

In the final scene, Aricia wakes up in the forest. She's still in mourning, believing Hippolytus is dead. Diana descends from the heavens, telling Aricia that a new king has arrived to become Aricia's husband. At first, Aricia turns away. But when the man approaches her, she sees that it's Hippolytus. Diana's woodland subjects celebrate the reunion as the opera ends.

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