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Hippolyte et Aricie

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Title: Hippolyte et Aricie  
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Subject: Baroque, 18th century, List of important operas, Phaedra (mythology), Pluto (mythology), Jean-Philippe Rameau, Timeline of musical events, Beverly Sills, Tommaso Traetta, Jessye Norman
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Hippolyte et Aricie

Hippolyte et Aricie (Hippolytus and Aricia) was the first opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau. It was premiered to great controversy by the Académie Royale de Musique at its theatre in the Palais-Royal in Paris on October 1, 1733. The French libretto, by Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, is based on Racine's tragedy Phèdre. The opera takes the traditional form of a tragédie en musique with an allegorical prologue followed by five acts. Early audiences found little else about the work to be conventional.

Composition history

When he wrote Hippolyte, Rameau was almost fifty, 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 as much, if not more, for his works on music theory, as for his books of keyboard pieces. The closest he had come to writing dramatic music was composing a few secular cantatas and some popular pieces for the Paris fairs. Yet some time in 1732, Rameau approached Abbé Pellegrin and asked him for a libretto. Pellegrin had written the words for Montéclair's tragédie en musique Jephté (February, 1732), a work which had greatly impressed Rameau. Hippolyte et Aricie was given a run-through at the house of Rameau's patron, La Pouplinière, in April, 1733 and went into rehearsal at the Opéra in September. To Rameau's annoyance, the musicians at the opera house found the second trio for the Fates (Trio des Parques), some of the composer's most daring music, too hard to play and it was cut. It was just a foretaste of the difficulties to come.

Reception: Lullistes versus Ramoneurs

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 had become 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 Sophie 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 Ramelian aesthetic played havoc with the confidence of the French in their patrimony, assaulted their national opera that they hoped was unchangeable."

Audiences and music critics soon split into two factions: the traditional Lullistes and Rameau's supporters, the Ramoneurs (a play on the French word for "chimney-sweep"). The controversy would burn on throughout the 1730s.

Performance history

The first run of Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733–34 enjoyed a respectable forty performances. It was revived for another forty performances in 1742–43 and again in 1757 and 1767. The revivals during Rameau's lifetime entailed several revisions, as was the composer's wont. Hippolyte et Aricie was never Rameau's most popular opera but its significance was recognised almost immediately and the Trio des Parques at least was well known by reputation in the nineteenth century, even in an era when no Rameau operas were being performed. The first modern revival took place in Paris on May 13, 1908. Another landmark was the recording by Anthony Lewis in 1966.

In recent years, Hippolyte et Aricie has shown strong indications it might re-enter the standard repertoire, with some of the leading lights of the Baroque revival, John Eliot Gardiner (at Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1982), Marc Minkowski (at Versailles Baroques Centre's Journée Rameau 1993, 2 concerts. then recorded CD), William Christie (at Opéra National de Paris in 1996, then recorded CD) (at Glyndebourne in 2013, cinema and online broadcast and future DVD release) and Emmanuelle Haïm (in the lavish show directed by Ivan Alexandre at Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse in 2009) giving acclaimed performances of the work.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, October 1, 1733
(Conductor: François Francœur)
Hippolyte (Hippolytus) haute-contre Denis-François Tribou
Aricie (Aricia) soprano Marie Pélissier
Phèdre (Phaedra) mezzo-soprano Marie Antier
Thésée (Theseus) bass Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais
Pluton (Pluto) baritone Jean Dun "fils"
Diane (Diana) soprano Mlle Eremans
Œnone, Phèdre's confidante soprano Mlle Monville
Arcas, friend to Thésée taille Louis-Antoine Cuvilliers
Mercure (Mercury) haute-contre Dumast
Tisiphone taille Louis-Antoine Cuvilliers
L'Amour, Cupid haute-contre Pierre Jélyotte
La Grande-Prêtresse, High Priestess soprano Mlle Petitpas
Parques, three Fates bass, taille, haute-contre Cuignier, Cuvilliers and Jélyotte
Un suivant de l'Amour, follower of Cupid haute-contre
Une prêtresse, a priestess of Diana soprano Mlle Petitpas
Une bergère, a shepherdess soprano Mlle Petitpas
Une matelote, a female sailor soprano Mlle Petitpas
Une chasseresse, a huntress soprano Mlle Petitpas
Spirits of the underworld, people of Troezen, sailors, huntsmen, nymphs of Diana,
shepherds and shepherdesses, people of the forest (chorus)

The ballet corps included Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo.



An overture in the typical Lullian style precedes the allegorical prologue set in the Forest of Erymanthus where Diana and 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. Diana vows to look after Hippolyte and Aricie.

Act 1

The temple of Diana in Troezen

The story concerns the Greek hero Theseus, King of Athens (Thésée in the opera), his wife Phaedra (Phedre) and Thésée's son by another woman, Hippolytus (Hippolyte). Hippolytus is in love with a young woman, Aricia, but she is the daughter of Theseus's enemy, Pallas, and he has compelled her to take a vow of chastity to Diana. Before she does so, Hippolytus reveals his love for her and the goddess promises to protect the couple. This enrages Phaedra, who has been nursing an illicit desire for her stepson herself. News arrives that Theseus has made a journey to the Underworld and is probably now dead. This means Phaedra may pursue her passion for Hippolytus and offer him the crown of Athens.

Act 2

Hades, the Underworld

Theseus descends to Hades to rescue his friend Pirithous, who has been captured when he tried to seduce Pluto (Pluton)'s wife, Proserpina (Proserpine). Theseus 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 Pluto's court. Pluto condemns Theseus to share the same fate as his friend but allows a trial. When Theseus again loses, he calls on Neptune to free him (his second prayer), and Pluto is powerless to hold him back. As Theseus leaves, however, the Furies (Les Parques) foretell that Theseus may leave Hades but he will find Hell in his own household.

Music from Act 3, Scene 8

Act 3

Theseus's palace by the sea

Phaedra meets Hippolytus, who offers his condolences on her bereavement. Mistaking his concern for love, Phaedra confesses her passion. Hippolytus is shocked and curses her. Phaedra tries to kill herself with a sword but Hippolytus snatches it from her. At this moment, Theseus arrives unexpectedly. He is unsure what to make of the scene, but fears Hippolytus was trying to rape his wife. Phaedra rushes off and Hippolytus nobly refuses to denounce his stepmother. But this only serves to increase his father's suspicions, now reinforced by Phaedra's confidante, Oenone. Theseus finally decides to use his last prayer to Neptune to punish Hippolytus.

Act 4

A grove sacred to Diana by the sea

Hippolytus realises he must go into exile and Aricia vows to go with him as his wife. The forest people celebrate Diana. A monster suddenly emerges from the sea – the instrument of Theseus's punishment. Hippolytus tries to fight it but disappears in a cloud of flames. Phaedra arrives, distraught, and admits she is the cause of Hippolytus's death.

Act 5

A grove sacred to Diana by the sea

Theseus has learnt the truth from Phaedra, just before she killed herself. Full of remorse, he too threatens suicide but Neptune reveals that his son is still alive, thanks to Diana's protection. However, Theseus will never see him again.

The forest of Aricia, Italy

Aricia wakes up, still mourning Hippolytus. Diana tell her she has found a husband for the girl, but Aricia is inconsolable until the goddess reveals Hippolytus, alive and well. The opera ends with general rejoicing.


La nuit de Rameau

A short melody from the act 1 has become a popular piece of choral music, but the text has nothing to do with the original. in the opera it is the moment when Aricie is first told that a sacrifice should be sincere: N'offrons à ces autels que des coeurs sans partage !


  • Cuthbert Girdlestone, Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Works (1957)
  • Graham Sadler, "Jean-Philippe Rameau" in The New Grove: French Baroque Masters (1986)
  • Magazine de l'opéra baroque (in French)

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