An Opera Worth Fighting Over

Opera is a pretty placid universe these days. So it’s hard to imagine a premiere that could single-handedly divide the music-loving public in two, separating it into factions with positions as hotly held as those of today’s Democrats and Republicans.

Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” had just such an impact on France when it opened at the Paris Opera in 1733. It will be presented in a new, eagerly anticipated production on April 17, 19 and 21 at the Juilliard School, which has become an early music powerhouse over the past decade.

“Hippolyte” was Rameau’s first opera, but it is not at all the product of a novice. Nearly 50 when he wrote it, already a master of the harpsichord and the author of a groundbreaking treatise on harmony, he had thought long and hard about the task, and probably knew the controversy he would be stirring.

Many qualities we esteem today — orchestrally accompanied recitatives, gripping declamation, colorful orchestration, a rich harmonic vocabulary — were greeted warily by a Parisian audience used to less overtly virtuosic music. Those hostile to “Hippolyte” regarded it as an attack on Rameau’s great predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who essentially invented the operatic genre known as “tragédie en musique” and had perfected a style of magnificent austerity.

Zack Winokur, center, the Juilliard production’s choreographer, demonstrating for Alex Rosen, who plays Thésée.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

The public separated into “lullistes” and “ramistes” (or, in an echo of the French word for chimney sweep, “ramoneurs”). The conflict raged for years as Rameau produced masterpiece after masterpiece.

Cuts and other alterations were made to bring “Hippolyte” closer to what was expected. But Stephen Stubbs, the conductor of the Juilliard production and an artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, said the original 1733 version “represents Rameau’s undigested thoughts about what opera should be.” This is essentially the version Juilliard will perform, in a rare New York performance of one of Rameau’s unforgettably grand “tragédies en musique.”

“‘Hippolyte’ is sort of mind-blowing in the sheer quantity of its creative ideas and even the quantity of notes,” Mr. Stubbs said in an interview. As the composer André Campra, Rameau’s contemporary, observed, “There is enough material in this opera to make 10 of them.”

Mr. Winokur, Kelsey Lauritano (Diane) and Stephen Wadsworth, the production’s director.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

Typically rooted in mythology, the librettos of “tragédies en musique” were crucial; the name of the genre emphasizes the texts as much as the sounds. That of “Hippolyte” is no exception. But in addition to classical sources — Euripides and Seneca — the librettist, Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, turned to Racine’s revered “Phèdre.”

“This is one of the greatest plays in the French language, and its force can be felt in the opera,” Stephen Wadsworth, the director, said in an email.

A prologue and five acts is the norm for these operas — Juilliard omits the prologue, in accordance with later practice during Rameau’s day — with each act consisting of dialogue scenes and a divertissement. The dialogue scenes advance the action through a fluent mix of recitative and (usually short) airs or duets. The divertissements, consisting of dances, choruses and solo songs, provide entertainment yet often relate meaningfully to the action.

“The jump-cutting from earthy dance music to complicated tragic introspection and back gives this piece its own, compelling character,” Mr. Wadsworth said. Zack Winokur, the choreographer of the Juilliard staging, said the production sometimes blurs the distinction between the scenes and the divertissements (which will be trimmed) in favor of “a single storytelling mechanism.”

The costume designer of the Juilliard production is Sarah Cubbage.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

The opera’s title couple are the picture of pastoral innocence. Aricie, the daughter of a vanquished enemy of the Athenian king, Thésée, has been ordered to become a priestess of the goddess Diana; her lover Hippolyte, Thésée’s son, vows to liberate her. But they become caught in a tragedy precipitated by an older, more decadent couple: Thésée and his wife, Phèdre, Hippolyte’s stepmother, who suffers from an unquenchable love for Hippolyte.

Act I opens with an exquisite da capo air in which Aricie, not yet aware Hippolyte reciprocates her love, contemplates the repose that serving Diana will bring her. But shifting harmonies in the middle section signify that her love for Hippolyte endures.

In the Act I divertissement, which coincides with Aricie’s induction ceremony, Mr. Winokur said he has tried to make the dances seem a natural part of the ceremony. It is broken off by the timely arrival of Diana — heralded by, among other things, an orchestral depiction of thunder.

Underworld scenes were almost obligatory in French opera of the time. In “Hippolyte,” Thésée travels to Hades to rescue a friend and ends up imprisoned himself. At Juilliard, this divertissement will have a hellish look, with images inspired by Egon Schiele; an arresting moment comes when a chorus of infernal divinities suddenly joins in the dance.

As a last resort, Thésée calls on his father, Neptune, for rescue, but the act ends chillingly: In the remarkable “Trio des Parques” (“Trio of the Fates”), Thésée is warned that he will find hell in his own home. The harmonies are so extreme that the singers in the original production refused to perform it.

Stephen Stubbs rehearsing the orchestra.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
The scenic designer is Charlie Corcoran.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

True to Aristotelian precepts, the opera’s climax occurs in Act III. In a dialogue scene that becomes increasingly fraught, Phèdre and Hippolyte talk at cross purposes as she hopes for his love. But when Hippolyte reaffirms his love for Aricie, Rameau shifts from recitative to a frenzied duet in which Phèdre lashes out against Aricie and a puzzled Hippolyte springs to her defense.

With a return to recitative, Phèdre almost inadvertently calls Aricie her rival. The accompaniment falls away as Hippolyte, realizing the truth, cries out, “Vôtre rival!”

In a brief air, he furiously calls on the gods to rain down thunderbolts. With a shift back to recitative, Phèdre realizes her situation is hopeless and urges Hippolyte to kill her, before seizing his sword herself.

Hippolyte retrieves it just as Thésée appears to witness his son threatening his wife. Phèdre departs with Hippolyte, who hides the truth out of filial respect, leaving Phèdre’s confidante, Oenone, to insinuate to the devastated Thésée that Hippolyte did indeed seek to harm Phèdre. Festive music is suddenly heard as the people celebrate Thésée’s safe return in an ironic divertissement.

Thésée rashly concludes his son is guilty and again invokes Neptune, this time to punish Hippolyte. In Act IV, set near the seashore, Hippolyte persuades Aricie to accompany him into exile. A group of hunters precipitates the act’s divertissement, which is cut short by the appearance of a sea monster. Winds and the ocean are evoked, this time with the participation of terrified voices.

Hippolyte is killed. A stark choral lament dovetails with Phèdre’s overwhelming monologue of remorse. In the intensity of its broken phrases, Rameau approaches the declamatory heights of French spoken theater.

In the final act, Thésée expresses his remorse. Summoned a final time, Neptune restores Hippolyte to life but punishes Thésée for his hastiness by forbidding him to see his son again. The final divertissement contains the opera’s only “ariette,” a form that often suggests a big, Italianate display piece. This one charmingly imitates bird calls.

Why are operas like “Hippolyte” so rarely encountered? Nearly 30 years ago, William Christie and his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, began a revelatory series of “tragédies en musique” productions that toured internationally, including several stagings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. These presentations, including “Hippolyte,” proved the works’ ability to speak to modern audiences.

But, as Mr. Wadsworth noted: “This is pricey stuff. The form is scaled large, often with different locations, and it is challenging dramaturgically, requiring integrated action among principals, chorus and dancers — much more challenging than a Handel opera.”

Happily, Juilliard has taken up the challenge.