Playing time: 167' (3 CDs)
Recording date: 1995
Hippolyte et Aricie was Rameau's first opera. His reputation until then had mainly rested on his harpsichord music, as well as his theoretical writings. The stage he was approaching for the first time was one whose works were molded in the same tradition inherited from Lully, but he set out to transform that tradition, and in the process generated significant opposition from traditionalists.
The story is taken from Classical mythology, by way of one of French literature's masterpieces, the Phèdre of Racine (1677). It is the story of Thésée, king of Athens, who has gone to the Underworld in a vain attempt to rescue a friend. Meanwhile, in Athens, his wife Phèdre has fallen in love with the king's son by a previous marriage, Hippolyte, who himself loves the young Aricie. Thésée returns only to discover the turmoil in his household, and Hippolyte is falsely accused of an attempt on Phèdre. Thésée curses his son and calls on the gods for revenge, which comes in the form of a monster which attacks Hippolyte. All think Hippolyte dead, and the queen, full of remorse, reveals the truth and kills herself. At this point the libretto diverges from Racine's account, for Hippolyte turns out to have been miraculously rescued by the gods, and he is returned to wed Aricie.
In spite of the happy ending, the work, unusually for Rameau, stands on its own in terms of drama. In particular, the characters of Phèdre tormented by her guilty love, yet jealous, ambitious and unscrupulous, and especially the figure of Thésée, are tragic. Hippolyte and Aricie, although less deep, are both suffering from a seemingly impossible love, and their parts are suffused with melancholy. One major innovation with respect to Racine is the 2nd Act, which describes Thésée's descent to the underworld. He is rescued from the wrath of Pluto by divine intervention, but before he leaves, it is revealed to him that, although he escapes hell, he will find it in his own house. Rameau particularly excelled in hellish scenes, and this act is a jewel of orchestral writing.
The music, then, is either wistful, tragic or terrifying. Even the obligatory dance interludes serve to heighten the drama: in Act 3, Thésée returns to Athens only to find Hippolyte and Phèdre fighting over a sword and visibly in the grip of terrible emotions. Yet he cannot investigate, as the grateful people of Athens crash on stage and perform a divertissement, which Thésée must endure before he can learn more.
Rameau's music broke new ground partly in the orchestral writing, which dazzles with its energy and speed in the various storm, monster and hell scenes; and in the dissonances he used, especially in the famous trio where the Fates make their prediction. Minkowski's Musiciens du Louvre do full justice to this aspect of the work, and deliver and electrifying performances.
Among the singers, Fouchécourt and Gens, both well-known to lovers of French Baroque music, do a splendid job in bringing out the delicate and muted sorrow in their roles, whose subtlety risks being overshadowed by the other, more striking characters. Bernarda Fink does also very well in the role of Phèdre, which requires a good measure of spiteful emotion, jealousy as well as self-hatred. The weaker singers are Smythe and Naouri, who both lack precision in their intonation. Moreover, whereas Naouri in the role of Pluto has the necessary fury, Smythe's attempt at cutting a noble and tragic figure often borders on phlegmatism.
This is nevertheless an excellent recording, and one of a remarkable opera, and is highly recommended. Note, however, that (according to rumours) William Christie plans to stage, and probably record, the same opera in 1997.
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