Jean-Philippe Rameau is now one of the most celebrated opera composers of all time—but he didn’t make his debut in the genre until he was nearly fifty! Already highly respected as a music theorist and harpsichord composer, his encounter with Montéclair’s Jephté in 1732 ignited a burst of creative energy that Rameau would forge into dozens of now-beloved operas, the very first of which was 1733’s Hippolyte et Aricie.
For this first foray into the dominant musical genre in Europe, Rameau enlisted Jephté librettist Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, who based the new tragédie en musique on Racine’s Phèdre (itself rooted in classics by Seneca and Euripides). The tormented, almost impossible love between Hippolyte (son of Athenian king Theseus) and Aricie (daughter of the king’s enemy), served as the narrative backdrop upon which Rameau broke with operatic conventions and sparked a scandal in the operatic milieu. The public was split into more conservative Lullistes, who saw Rameau's music as a threat to the forms established by court favorite Lully, and Ramistes, who prized Rameau’s innovations in harmony, orchestration and ornament—among them composer André Campra, who declared of Hippolyte et Aricie that “there is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all.”
Nearly 300 years later, Hippolyte et Aricie’s place in the repertoire—like Rameau’s place in opera history—is no longer in question, though it is certainly still capable of causing a stir. This 2018 production unites an impeccable cast—including Anna Prohaska as Aricie and Reinoud Van Mechelen as Hippolyte—with Sir Simon Rattle and the Freiburger Barockorchester, one of the world's most prestigious baroque orchestras, in a bold new staging that sparked lively controversy with its striking modernity.