From the moment months ago that Juilliard Opera announced it would be staging the first US production in nearly 20 years of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s monumental Hippolyte et Aricie my heart has been filled with admiration and gratitude. But just before the generally admirable first performance concluded Tuesday evening at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater the assembled forces committed such a catastrophic misstep that I had my head in my hands groaning in disbelief instead of joining in the general applause around me. 

While one might switch around the opera’s final numbers—John Eliot Gardiner concluded with an extended suite of dances; Marc Minkowski a trio of gavottes; Emmanuelle Haïm the opera’s ravishing chaconne—there’s always a chorus of celebration and homage to Diane “Que tout soit heureux sous les lois” which William Christie always taps for his ending.

But at Juilliard conductor Stephen Stubbs and director Stephen Wadsworth jettisoned the chorus and instead dropped in the exquisite “Entrée de Polymnie” from Rameau’s final opera Les Boréades composed 30 (!) years after Hippolyte. My colleague Patrick James who was seated to my left will testify that I audibly gasped at this incomprehensible and ineffective appropriation.

In my years of loving baroque opera I’ve witnessed some pretty disturbing faux pas like New York City Opera cutting the most beautiful aria in Handel’s Orlando but Juilliard’s botched ending combined with Wadsworth’s baffling addition of a jokey spoken prologue in English soared immediately to the top of my list of thoroughly misguided interventions.

It was particularly disheartening as Juilliard Opera, Juilliard 415 and Juilliard Dance had joined forces all evening to admirably conquer many of the challenges involved in presenting a Rameau tragédie en musique.

Why bother? Simply because Rameau is one of the opera’s greatest composers and those of us outside Europe so rarely get a chance to experience his works. Juilliard’s version of the noble and startling Hippolyte, his first work for the stage which premiered a week after his 50th birthday, might be only the fourth time it’s been staged in the US, the last by Opera-Theatre of St. Louis production by Colin Graham in 2001.

Although at its first performance in 1733 it was loathed by many for its bristling intensity and harmonic adventurousness, Hippolyte mostly adheres to the strict conventions for serious French opera established by Jean-Baptiste Lully (who was born in Italy, by the way) over 60 years before. A prologue peopled by philosophizing gods is followed by five acts (each with divertissements featuring choruses and dancing) that portray an elevated drama here drawn from both classical mythology and Racine’s 1677 searing drama Phèdre.

In Rameau’s libretto by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, Thésée has returned victorious from war with his enemy’s daughter Aricie whom he has cloistered at the temple of Diane. She has nonetheless been noticed by Thésée’s son Hippolyte with whom she has fallen in love. Yet this attachment angers Thésée’s second wife Phèdre who has become absorbed by a scandalous passion for her stepson.

After Phèdre brazenly admits her love to Hippolyte, Thésée walks in on the pair in a compromising encounter which Thésée misinterprets thanks to Phèdre’s conniving nurse. He swears vengeance which causes Hippolyte to be set soon upon by a sea monster, but through the intervention of Diane he is reunited with an amazed Aricie.

Though the opera is named after those happy lovers, it might more aptly be entitled Thésée et Phèdreas they are the more complex and interesting figures. Fittingly in Juilliard’s presentation Alex Rosen and Natalia Kutateladze soared above the rest of the cast. Clad in a striking scarlet gown, the latter in particular strikingly embodied both Phèdre’s fury and tortured self-loathing with a sure mastery of French declamation.

Her smoky mezzo mellowed in “Cruelle mère des amours,” her introspective monologue cursing the gods for her fatal obsession. Her devastated anguish at the crushing discovery of Hippolyte’s “death” was the evening’s most moving moment until Wadsworth ruined it by having Thésée distractedly shuffle by.

For the most part Wadsworth effectively directed his cast to perform with an intense but patrician elegance but he seriously let Rosen down during his biggest challenge, Thésée’s harrowing descent into Hell. During that all-male second act in which the king is tormented by Tisiphone and Pluton, a tied-up Rosen was whipped and branded by writhing furies accompanied by nonstop yelps and thwacks that evoked a 1970s BDSM club.

The singer coped manfully with his tortures but his stylish bass was often stressed by Thésée’s high tessitura and he frequently took his music down lessening both that scene and Thésée’s later cursing of Hippolyte of their wrenching power.

Neither Aricie nor Hippolyte have much dramatic profile but they are blessed with some lovely music particularly Aricie who also stole the opera’s surprising “hit tune”–the bewitching nightingale aria “Rossignols amoureux”

normally performed by an anonymous Bergère. Onadek Winan’s soprano might have lacked the ideal cool purity for the beleaguered Aricie but she brought to the role a welcome fiery spirit and the long monologue of mourning that opened the final scene was spun out with a fine delicacy. Despite being born in Paris, her diction was disappointing.

Kyle Stegall, the production’s one guest performer, was brought into perform Hippolyte but oddly he was the weakest of the principals. Although he demonstrated a welcome familiarity with the idiom his strangled tenor brought little pleasure and blended poorly with Winan during their frequent sweet duets. Although they had far less to sing both Charles Sy as Arcas and Chance Jonas-O’Toole as Mercure sounded as if they might have been more effective casting as Hippolyte.

Kelsey Lauritano’s interestingly dusky mezzo and authoritative stage presence combined for a commanding Diane ably seconded by Shaked Bar’s fine Grand Prêtresse. Joshua Blue’s vicious Tisiphone and William Guanbo Su’s thundering Pluton worked in frightening tandem with the haunting Parques of Sy, Xiaomeng Zhang and Andrew Munn to overcome Wadsworth’s noisy excesses in Hell to do justice to the most powerful act in all Rameau.

An augmented Juilliard 415, the original instrument ensemble from the Historical Performance program, played with inviting nuance and an infectious spirit only tiring a bit at the end of the long first half when string intonation suffered. Particularly impressive were Mili Chang and Jonathan Slade in Rameau’s ravishing flute writing.

At times one wanted more bite from Stubbs’s conducting and occasionally especially in the more spirited choral numbers he wasn’t quite able to hold things together. But for the most part his was a richly satisfying account of a difficult score.

The presence of choreographer Zack Winokur and Juilliard Dance was initially encouraging but Wadsworth was consistently reluctant to let them do their stuff. During the fourth act for example the dancers were crowded to one side of the stage in subdued lighting while one’s attention was directed instead to Hippolyte and Aricie silently emoting in the foreground. In the gorgeous final chaconne which cried out for movement no one danced while Hippolyte moped on the side of the stage… huh?

Wadsworth never seemed at ease with the conventions of tragédie en musique: his hamfisted prologue sought to reduce the opera to a response to Thésée’s hubris and he generally refused to let the divertissements do what they are supposed to do—divert!

As I remarked to Patrick as we left, for every two good ideas of Wadsworth—and there were many, in particular the fatal confrontation between Hippolyte and Phèdre was superbly directed—there was a bad one like having Hippolyte and Phèdre cavort back and forth during the welcoming choruses that interrupt Thésée’s haunted ruminations after his discovery of their interaction.

Yes for all its considerable strengths I left this Hippolyteoutraged by the stupid ending and chagrined that those in charge had demonstrated such ambivalence toward Rameau and their audience. Their changes, additions and subtractions nearly always harmed rather than helped. If you’re going to perform a masterpiece, why not just trust the work as it is?

But perhaps Juilliard’s Hippolyte, stumbles and all, heralds a new life for Rameau beyond France where his works are revived with some regularity. I’ve heard the Glyndebourne Festival balked at Simon Rattle’s desire to conduct Hippolyte there and instead waited years before letting Christie tackle it several years ago in Jonathan Kent’s disastrous production. But Rattle finally gets his chance at the Berlin Staatsoper this November with his wife Magdalena Kozena as Phèdre.

In May 2019 Haïm also conducts a new Hippolyte in Zurich with the always fascinating Stéphanie d’Oustrac as the predatory stepmom.

In addition, former Les Arts Florissants Hippolyte Paul Agnew collaborates with director Rolando Villazon (!) for Platée next season at Dresden’s Semper Oper, while France, not to be outdone, hosts a new Les Boréades in Dijon, the composer’s birthplace, directed by Barrie Kosky, a production to be eventually seen at Berlin’s Komische Oper.

I was surprised to discover that three of the principals from the last time I heard Hippolyte are in New York—I wonder what they would think of what’s happening at Juilliard. Christie who will receive an Opera News award on Sunday conducted LAF’s miraculous staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997 with Mark Padmore (performing lieder at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday) and Laurent Naouri (currently Pandolfe in Cendrillon at the Met) as his Hippolyte and Thésée.

For those who wish to “go to Hell” with Thésée either for the first time or for a return visit, the audio clip below features a magnificent Enfers act from one of the most thrilling Rameau performances ever.

Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie—Act II
Aix-en-Provence Festival
27 July 1983

Thésée – José van Dam
Pluton – Jules Bastin
Tisiphone – Jean-Claude Orliac
Parques – Ashley Stafford, Leonard Pezzino & Gilles Cachemaille

English Baroque Soloists
Monteverdi Choir
Conductor – John Eliot Gardiner

Photos: Richard Termine