"I have been a follower of the stage since I was 12 years old. I only began work on an opera when I was 50, I still didn't think I was capable; I tried my hand, I was lucky, I continued." (Rameau, letter to Abbé Mongeot, 1744).
Rameau was almost 50 when he wrote Hippolyte et Aricie and there was little in his life to suggest he was about to embark on a major new career as an opera composer. He was famous for his works on music theory as well as books of harpsichord pieces. The closest he had come to writing dramatic music was composing a few secular cantatas and some popular pieces for the Paris fairs for his friend Alexis Piron. Yet Rameau's eagerness to write an opera is shown by a letter he wrote in October 1727 to Antoine Houdar de La Motte asking for a libretto. It was a strange choice; once famous for providing the texts to such works as André Campra's L'Europe galante (1697) and Marin Marais's Alcyone (1706), Houdar de La Motte had written nothing for the musical stage for almost 20 years. Nothing came of the request and there is no record of any reply, but the fact that Rameau carefully preserved his own letter among his personal papers proves how much the project must have meant to him.
The turning point finally came in 1732. In February that year, Michel Montéclair's tragédie en musique Jephté premiered at the Paris Opéra. Rameau was said to be so impressed by the opera that he approached its librettist, Pellegrin, for a tragédie en musique of his own. The result was Hippolyte et Aricie. In spring 1733, the new opera was given a run-through either at the house of Rameau's patron, La Pouplinière, or at that of the Prince de Carignan. It went into rehearsal at the Opéra in July. Even at this stage there were problems and Rameau had to cut the second Trio des Parques ("Trio of the Fates") in the second act because the performers found it too hard to play. This was just a foretaste of the difficulties to come when Hippolyte et Aricie received its premiere on 1 October, shortly after Rameau's 50th birthday.
Tragédie en musique had been invented as a genre by Lully and his librettist Quinault in the 1670s and 1680s. Their works had held the stage ever since and come to be regarded as a French national institution. When Hippolyte et Aricie made its debut, many in the audience were delighted, praising Rameau as "the Orpheus of our century". André Campra was struck by the richness of invention: "There is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all".
Others, however, felt the music was bizarre and dissonant (Hippolyte was the first opera to be described as baroque, then a term of abuse). They saw Rameau's work as an assault on Lullian opera and French musical tradition. As Sylvie Bouissou puts it:
With a single stroke Rameau destroyed everything Lully had spent years in constructing: the proud, chauvinistic and complacent union of the French around one and the same cultural object, the offspring of his and Quinault's genius. Then suddenly the Ramellian aesthetic played havoc with the confidence of the French in their patrimony, assaulted their national opera that they hoped was unchangeable."
Structurally, Hippolyte followed the model established by Lully: a French overture followed by a prologue and five acts, each with its own divertissement containing dances, solos and choruses. Musically, however, it was totally different, especially the orchestration. Rameau had rethought everything apart from the recitative and petits airs (short arias inserted into the recitative), from the symphonies (dances and descriptive music) to the accompaniments to the vocal music (arias, ensembles, choruses). The dominant feeling among those hostile to the opera was that there was an excess of music: too much accompaniment, too many symphonies and too many notes. The music was too difficult to perform, it was too "learned", it lacked true feeling and contained an abundance of dissonances and exaggerated virtuosity.
Audiences and music critics soon split into two factions: the traditionalist lullistes and Rameau's supporters, the ramistes or ramoneurs (a play on the French word for "chimney-sweep"). Cuthbert Girdlestone described the quarrel thus:
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.
There continued to be heated controversy with each new Rameau opera in the 1730s, reaching a peak with the premiere of Dardanus in 1739. Thereafter, it died down as Rameau's reputation became more established, but there were still hints of the dispute as late as the 1750s.
Rameau revised Hippolyte for a revival in 1742. Apart from small changes in detail, he substantially reduced the role of Phèdre, replacing her Act 3 aria "Cruelle mère des amours" with a recitative and completely suppressing her death scene in Act 4. These changes were so drastic - the musicologist Sylvie Bouissou describes them as "blasphemy" - that the soprano Mlle Chevalier refused to sing the role of Phèdre. The revised version made its debut on 11 September 1742. In spite of initial criticisms of poor singing it was a great success, running for 43 performances in 1742 and 1743.
Rameau revised the work again in 1757 for a run which lasted for 24 performances. By this time his reputation as the foremost French composer was so firmly established that he was confident enough to restore some of the most daring music from the original version, including the "Trio des Parques" and Phèdre's arias. In line with the practice he had adopted since Zoroastre in 1749 he completely cut the prologue. There was another revival at the Paris Opéra in 1767, after Rameau's death, which lasted for 14 performances. After that, the work disappeared from the stage until the 20th century.
The first modern performance took place in Geneva in March 1903 under the direction of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, the founder of eurhythmics.
Hippolyte returned to the Paris Opéra after a 150-year absence on May 13, 1908. The production did not impress critics such as Henri Quittard and Louis Laloy. They attacked what they regarded as poor staging, acting and choreography, but their harshest criticism was reserved for the alterations to the score made by Vincent d'Indy. Laloy condemned the production for focusing on the recitative at the expense of the arias. He remarked:
How hard it is for some of us to understand an art whose sole aim is to please, not to teach or even move, us. We have utterly forgotten the character of early opera, which is a suite of dances tied together by dialogues and airs, and not, as in the nineteenth century, a dramatic plot decked out with festivities and parades.
There was no attempt to use Baroque instruments and the harpsichord was barely audible in the huge auditorium of the Palais Garnier. The singers suffered from poor intonation despite the assistance of a double string quartet during the recitatives.
Hippolyte et Aricie appeared with increasingly frequency on stage and in concert in the second half of the 20th century with performances under Jean-Claude Malgoire and Charles Mackerras, for example. John Eliot Gardiner conducted it at Aix-en-Provence in 1983 and Lyon in 1984 in a staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Pizzi's production was taken up by William Christie at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1985 and by Jean-Claude Malgoire at Lausanne and Reggio Emilia in 1987. Marc Minkowski conducted concert performances at several locations, including Versailles, in 1994. William Christie again conducted the opera at the Palais Garnier, Paris in 1996 in a production by Jean-Marie Villegier which subsequently toured Nice, Montpellier, Caen, Vienna and New York. In the 21st century there have been performances conducted by Jane Glover, Ryan Brown, Emmanuelle Haïm, Raphaël Pichon, György Vashegyi and William Christie (this time at Glyndebourne in 2013).
At the age of 69 Pellegrin had a long career as an opera librettist behind him so it was unsurprising Rameau should have approached him for his debut, especially given his authorship of Jephté. Distant models for Hippoyte et Aricie were Hippolytus by Euripides and Phaedra by Seneca, but the most important source was Jean Racine's famous tragedy Phèdre (1677). Such a classic of the Grand Siècle would have been well known the audience so adapting it might be seen as a deliberate provocation to the conservatives.
There are several differences between Hippolyte et Aricie and Phèdre. Some of these are due to differences in genre between French Classical drama and tragédie en musique. Racine observes the Aristotelian unities of time and space: the action of his play is confined to a single location and takes place within 24 hours. On the other hand, each act in Pellegrin's libretto has a different setting. Pellegrin also provides a happy ending, at least for the lovers Hippolyte et Aricie, whereas Racine is wholly tragic; Hippolyte does not rise from the dead. Pellegrin's drama has a major change in focus: Racine's play centres on Phèdre; she is still important in Pellegrin's version but he pays much more attention to Thésée. For instance, the entirety of the second act is devoted to Thésée's visit to the Underworld. Graham Sadler writes:
In spite of the opera's title, it is not the youthful lovers Hippolytus and Aricia that dominate the drama but rather the tragic figures of Theseus and Phaedra. That of Theseus is more extensive and powerful. It gains immensely by Pellegrin's decision to devote the whole of Act 2 to the king's selfless journey to Hades.
He goes on to describe Theseus as "one of the most moving and monumental characterizations in Baroque opera."
The overture begins conventionally enough in traditionally noble Lullian style but the technical complexity of the ensuing fugal movement must have disturbed conservative critics worried that Rameau's music would be overly savant (learned). Since the death of Louis XIV the allegorical prologue no longer had any social or political function. Instead, Pellegrin uses it to foreshadow the action of the main opera by showing Destiny ordering Diana and Cupid to unite their efforts to ensure a happy outcome for Hippolyte and Aricie's love. The music of the prologue creates a "light and airy" atmosphere. The two gavottes in the divertissement soon became immensely popular.
The first act introduces the lovers Hippolyte and Aricie as well as the jealous Phèdre. It begins with Aricie's aria "Temple sacré, séjour tranquille", with its solemn and "religious cast". There follows an extensive dialogue in recitative between Aricie and Hippolyte. Rameau's recitative is like Lully's in that it respects the prosody of the words but is more cantabile (song-like) and has more ornamentation, with wider intervals to increase expressivity. Phèdre then gives vent to her jealousy in the aria "Périsse la vaine puissance". The High Priestess of Diana arrives and sings a highly contrapuntal aria with contributions from the chorus. The tonnerre (thunder) which ensues is in the French tradition of the musical depiction of meteorological phenomena. The most famous earlier example was in Marais's Sémélé (1709). Rameau's music is much more intense, containing "Vivaldian tremolos and rapid scale figures."
Pellegrin situated the second act in the Underworld, following the example of Lully's Alceste (1671), Isis (1674) and Proserpine (1680) as well as later works by Desmarets, Marais and Destouches. Isis, which had been revived on 14 December 1732, was particularly important for Pellegrin as it had a trio for the Fates. The dark colour of this act is enhanced by the use of solely male voices. There are lively and rhythmically inventive dances for the demons contrasted with Thésée's moving invocations to save the life of his friend Pirithous in music in which "the expression of the sentiment is cut down, as it were, to the bone". The act concludes with the famous and controversial second "Trio des Parques", omitted from the premiere because the Opéra's singers and instrumentalists found it too hard to play. It makes use of enharmony, a technique Rameau believed was ideal for "inspiring dread and horror."
At the beginning of Act Three, Phèdre implores Venus for mercy in the aria "Cruelle mère des amours" which Girdlestone praises as a "magnificent solo" in spite of its "terribly flat" words. There follows a violent confrontation between Phèdre and Hippolyte then a scene in which Phèdre's confidante Oenone suggests to the king that Hippolyte has attempted to seduce his wife. In a scene of "grim irony", Thésée is forced to suppress his rage while he watches a divertissement of sailors thanking Neptune for his safe return home. The entertainment consists of two rigaudons, two danced airs and the chorus "Que ce rivage rétentisse". The festivities over, Thésée finally has the chance to call on his father Neptune to punish Hippolyte in the invocation "Puissant maître des flots", which Girdlestone regarded as one of the finest solos of the 18th century with its contrast between the violin melody and the slower bass.
Act Four opens with Hippolyte's monologue "Ah, faut-il qu'en un jour" which looks forward to similarly "elegiac" arias in Rameau's later operas, for example "Lieux désolés" in Les Boréades. The divertissement in the middle of the act celebrates the hunt with extensive use of horns. The finale is devoted to Hippolyte's confrontation with the sea monster, depicted in stormy music in which the flutes represent blasts of wind. It ends with Phèdre's great lament, which Sylvie Bouissou describes as "one of the finest pages of French Baroque opera."
The final act is split into two tableaux. In the first, Thésée expresses his remorse for his treatment of Hippolyte and recounts Phèdre's suicide. In the words of Cuthbert Girdlestone, "it is a passionate, despairing scena with no fixed form." The scene shifts as Aricie is transported to be reunited with the resurrected Hippolyte in a beautiful rural landscape. This allows Rameau to paint the scene using the techniques of pastoral music, including a musette (bagpipe). He also displays his orchestral skill in a chaconne, another feature of many of his later operas. The composer made a concession to popular taste by inserting the "Nightingale aria" ("Rossignols amoureux") before the final gavottes. It is an example of an ariette, the French term for a long bravura aria in the Italian style with the aim of showing off the singer's technical prowess. This particular specimen has no connection with the action of the drama, something Rameau would change with ariettes he wrote later such as "Que ce séjour est agréable" and "Aux langueurs d'Apollon Daphné se refusa" in Platée.
The ballet corps included Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo.
The opera uses an orchestra with the following instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 musettes, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and other percussion, strings (with divided violas), harpsichord.
An overture in the typical Lullian style precedes the allegorical prologue set in the Forest of Erymanthus where Diane (Diana) and L'Amour (Cupid) are arguing who will rule over the forest dwellers. The quarrel is settled by Jupiter who decrees that Love will reign over their hearts for one day every year. Diane vows to look after Hippolyte and Aricie.
The temple of Diane in Troezen
The story concerns the Greek hero Theseus, King of Athens (Thésée in the opera), his wife Phèdre (Phaedra) and Thésée's son by another woman, Hippolyte (Hippolytus). Hippolyte is in love with a young woman, Aricie, but she is the daughter of Thesée's enemy, Pallas, and he has compelled her to take a vow of chastity to Diane. Before she does so, Hippolyte reveals his love for her and the goddess promises to protect the couple. This enrages Phèdre, who has been nursing an illicit desire for her stepson herself. News arrives that Thésée has made a journey to the Underworld and is probably now dead. This means Phèdre may pursue her passion for Hippolyte and offer him the crown of Athens.
Hades, the Underworld
Théséé descends to Hades to rescue his friend Pirithous, who has been captured when he tried to seduce Pluton (Pluto)'s wife, Proserpine (Proserpina). Thésée has a special advantage: his father, the god Neptune, has promised to answer his prayers on three occasions during his life. The first prayer Theseus makes is to be allowed to reach Hades. At the entrance, he fights with the Fury Tisiphone, but makes it through to Pluton's court. Pluton condemns Thésée to share the same fate as his friend but allows a trial. When Thésée again loses, he calls on Neptune to free him (his second prayer), and Pluton is powerless to hold him back. As Thésée leaves, however, the Furies (Les Parques) foretell that Thésée may leave Hades but he will find Hell in his own household.
Thésée's palace by the sea
Phèdre meets Hippolyte, who offers his condolences on her bereavement. Mistaking his concern for love, Phaedra 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 Phaedra's confidante, Oenone. Thésée finally decides to use his last prayer to Neptune to punish Hippolyte.
A grove sacred to Diane by the sea
Hippolyte realises he must go into exile and Aricie vows to go with him as his wife. The forest people celebrate Diana. 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.
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. 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.
The opera was parodied twice at the Comédie-Italienne, Paris, once by François Riccoboni and Jean-Antoine Romagnesi (premiered 30 November 1733) and then, during the 1742 revival, by Charles-Simon Favart (11 October 1742). Both parodies went under the title Hippolyte et Aricie.
Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni provided an Italian version of the libretto for Tommaso Traetta, a composer who experimented with mixing French and Italian operatic styles. Traetta's Ippolito ed Aricia was first performed at the Teatro Ducale, Parma on 9 May 1759. Frugoni's version of Pellegrin's libretto was also the basis for a handful of later operas: Ignaz Holzbauer's Ippolito ed Aricia (Mannheim, 1759), Giovanni Paisiello's Fedra (Naples, 1 January 1788), and Sebastiano Nasolini's Teseo a Stige (Florence, 28 December 1790).