Major Operas | Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau | Late Baroque
Rameau’s magnificent Hippolyte et Aricie is a rare example of a major composer’s first attempt at opera also being one of his greatest achievements. However, Rameau was nearly 50 years old and already a respected and experienced musician when he composed it, and had evidently been contemplating the project for several years.
The impressive literary quality of Pellegrin’s libretto possesses a plot derived from Euripides, Seneca and Racine. The tragic figures Thésée and Phédre, whose fatal errors of judgement inspired Rameau to tremendous musical achievements, overshadow the youthful lovers Hippolyte and Aricie. In particular, Phédre’s remorse over the apparent death of her stepson is one of the outstanding soliloquies in Baroque opera. Rameau’s music retains its ability to astonish and impress audiences today, not least due to many intense accompanied recitatives and dynamic choruses. In this opera more than any other, Rameau depicts pastoral beauty, emotional pathos and brutal cruelty with unfailing genius. Although the opera created controversy and acclaim alike for its composer, it was heavily abridged prior to its premiere in 1733, and was not considered one of Rameau’s finest works during his own lifetime.
Diane and l’Amour dispute who holds more power over the forest’s inhabitants. Jupiter explains that l’Amour is supported by le Destin (Fate). Diane resolves to protect Hippolyte and Aricie.
Thésée, King of Athens, has vanquished his rivals, with the exception of Aricie. She has been ordered to make a vow of chastity but is in love with Hippolyte, the king’s son. The king’s second wife, Phèdre, also loves Hippolyte. Aricie prepares to make her vows. Hippolyte enters and they call on Diane for protection. During a procession, Phèdre accuses Aricie of not making her vows; she is defiant and the priestesses protect her. Diane confirms she will look after the lovers. The news arrives that Thésée has descended to the underworld and can therefore be considered dead. Phèdre is convinced that this means she is free to pursue Hippolyte.
Thésée was promised three favours from his father, Neptune. His descent to the underworld is the first of these; he wishes to rescue his friend Pirithoüs, who is attempting to abduct Proserpine, wife of Pluton who rules the underworld. Thésée tries to persuade Pluton to let him join his friend. Eventually, a tribunal is called, but Thésée’s wish to be reunited with Pirithoüs is not granted. Thésée calls upon his second favour from Neptune: to be released from the underworld. The gods tell him that it is not easy to leave the underworld, but Mercure intervenes and saves him. Thésée is told by spirits that he will find a similar hell at his home when he returns.
Phèdre is trying to make Hippolyte return her affections. She offers him power and the crown as well as her love. Hippolyte is appalled and calls on the gods to punish her. Phèdre, ashamed, asks Hippolyte to...
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