Hippolyte et Aricie
Tragédie lyrique in five acts (1733/1757)
Simon-Joseph Pellegrin after the tragedie »Phèdre« by Jean Racine,
3rd version from 1757, with selected passages from the 1st version from 1733
Rameau’s music is nuanced and full of contrasts, with a multitude of sounds, forms and expressive moments. Deep earnestness is paired with fleet-footed entertainment, lyrical inwardness with dramatic accents, resulting in the unfolding of a cosmos, and revealing the treasures of Greek myth as well as the magic of French Baroque.
Theseus has defeated the Pallantides and gained control over Athens. The numerous sons of Pallas have been destroyed, with only their sister Aricia being spared. In order to stop the succession of the royal family line, Aricia is ordered to serve the goddess Diana, where she would have to vow to remain chaste and childless. Theseus’ son Hippolytus is also a follower of Diana, but is attracted to Aricia. Aricia, in turn, requites his love. Hippolytus is desired by his stepmother Phaedra, the daughter of the Cretan King Minos and the sister of Ariadne. While Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Aricia are caught in a dangerous love triangle, Theseus, who has been granted three wishes by his father the sea god Neptune, uses one of his wishes to descend into the underworld. Here he hopes to find his friend Perithous, who is being punished for planning to abduct Pluto’s wife Prosperina, and bring him back to life. In his absence, Theseus has handed over the reins of power to Phaedra.
Aricia prepares to dedicate her life to the goddess Diana in the sacred forest. Hippolytus arrives unexpectedly and declares his love for her. The high priestess and the followers of Diana celebrate the power of pure of love, and the arriving Phaedra tries to force Hippolyte to support Aricia’s induction into the temple of Diana. Aricia asks how she can faithfully offer her heart to Diana when she is in love with Hippolytus. Furious, Pheadra corrupts the temple, and the followers of Diana call to their goddess for her intervention. Diana appears, accompanied by lightning and thunder. She blesses the relationship of Hippolytus and Aricia, whom she sees as bound in love to one another and to her, and warns Phaedra not to act against her divine will. Phaedra is left alone, humiliated and filled with hatred.
Theseus is met outside the gates to the underworld by the fury Tisiphone, who tells him of the horrors that await him within, and that any hope of eventually leaving Hades is in vain. Theseus is bought before Pluto’s throne, where he requests Perithous’ release and permission to return to the world of the living. Pluto rejects his request, and instead asks his spirits of Hell to prepare gruesome tortures for the fallen heroes. Theseus asks to die, but the Three Fates, who alone know the future, refuse to grant him his request; he is not in control of his own destiny. Theseus calls on his father Neptune, and wishes to leave the underworld. Supported by the god Mercury, who also intervenes on Neptune’s behalf, Pluto releases Theseus from Hades. Before doing so, the Fates prophecise Theseus’ future: he can leave hell, but he will find hell again in his own home.
In the Palace, Phaedra accuses the goddess of love of cruelty: despite her flaming passion, she feels powerless in her quest for Hippolytus. Hippolytus arrives, having received news that Theseus is not returning from the underworld. Phaedra tells Hippolytus that she has no feelings of hatred for him, and on hearing this Hippolytus warmly gives his support to Phaedra. He refuses the throne and offers to act as father to the joint son of Phaedra and Theseus, who should instead become the new ruler. Mistaking his generosity for genuine loving affection, Phaedra is shocked when Hippolytus’ announces that his only desire is to be united with Aricia. Appalled at her mistake, Phaedra reveals to him her love for him, and seeing Hippolytus’ horror throws herself at him with passion and rage. At that very moment Theseus returns to the palace, and is shocked by what he sees. Phaedra and then Hippolytus abruptly leave, without explaining what has happened. Phaedra’s servant, Oenone, protects Phaedra by suggesting to Theseus that Hippolytus was about to commit violence against Phaedra. In despair, Theseus asks Neptune for a third wish: to avenge the dishonor with Hippolytus’ death. Neptune signals through the waves that his wish has been granted.
Hippolytus is preparing to go into exile, but is found by Aricia, who has heard the news of his unexpected departure and is desperate for answers. Hippolytus is unable to reveal the truth, but again restates his unfailing love. He asks Aricia to leave with him, she agrees and the couple swear their love to each other, praying to Diana for her blessing. A hunting party encourages Hippolytus and Aricia to join them. Suddenly a sea monster emerges from the ocean. Hippolytus bravely takes up the battle with the monster, but when the fog lifts, he has disappeared. Phaedra arrives and mourns the death of the beloved Hippolytus.
Aricia awakens from an unconsciousness spell, and laments the loss of Hippolytus. With a group of shepherds, Aricia calls on the goddess Diana, who descends from the heavens to her faithful followers. She announces that a new ruler is to reign over the people in the forest according to her will. Hippolytus returns, having been saved by the gods, and both Hippolytus and Aricia are presented to Diana’s followers as the new rulers of the forest. Aricia hears the song of a nightingale, and united with Hippolytus, leaves to start a new life of harmony and happiness.