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Rameau's Last Tango: 'Hippolyte Et Aricie'

When Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Hippolyte et Aricie first appeared, it caused vehement confrontations on the streets of Paris. By now, it's hard for us to grasp why that happened; heard today, the opera is beautiful and moving, but it hardly sounds scandalous.

Still, it's easy to find more recent examples of dramatic art that have prompted similar reactions — and for many of the same reasons Rameau's work created a stir back in 1733.

When director Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was released in 1976, it produced a tectonic divide among movie buffs and critics. Many called it simple pornography. There was a report claiming that, at one screening, it caused "vomiting by well-dressed wives." On the other hand, the highly respected critic Pauline Kael praised the film as a work that "altered the face of an art form."

The controversy wasn't necessarily over the movie's unusually graphic visual content, though that was part of it. It was more about the overt portrayal of raw emotions and desires that are nearly always kept well under wraps, both at the movies and in real life. Bertolucci put them front and center — with an exclamation point — and created an uproar. So, however you might feel about the film, Kael may have had it exactly right. When an artist genuinely alters an established art form, many will find the new territory deeply disturbing.

That's what happened to Rameau in 1733, and in more ways than one. He didn't feature any graphic sexuality in his opera, as Bertolucci did in Last Tango, but Rameau did other things that some in his audience found just as objectionable. When the story called for roiling seas and roaring winds, he actually depicted them in the orchestra, with scrambling strings, rumbling drums and a howling wind machine. Traditionalists found it excessive and unseemly.

And to those with conservative ears, Rameau did something even more offensive. The opera's story has a strong current of erotic obsession, and even incestuous lust, running barely below the surface. The composer gave that undercurrent a starring role, using radical forms and harmonies to create music with a raw passion that's at least a match for his characters' darkest and most forbidden desires. Opera audiences had come to expect works we might compare to today's elaborate, wide-screen costume epics. Rameau gave them intense, art-house psychodramas.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie — the last tango of 18th century Paris — in a lush production from the Capitole of Toulouse. It's led by the exciting young conductor Emmanuelle Haim, with the orchestra and chorus of the Concert d'Astree.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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