The Lullistes and Ramoneurs took to the streets of Paris, clamouring to be heard. The pamphlet offensive began in 1733 following the premiere of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie. Adapted from Racine’s classic tragedy, Phèdre, the darkly psychological five-act tragédie en musique burst onto the Paris stage, fresh, sensational and hotly controversial. Advocates of change were exalted. Traditionalists were incensed. Their champion, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had died nearly half a century earlier, had virtually invented French opera at the court of Louis XIV. Rameau, by comparison, was a newcomer, a disrespectful dabbler, a disgrace to the artistic cause. A new epithet was coined, a disparaging jab at the impertinent upstart’s startling, unorthodox style — baroque, translated from the Portuguese, barroco, a kind of misshapen fresh water pearl. The war of words would rage for almost a decade.

Opera seria had found a new star.

Voicebox: Opera in Concert brings Rameau’s intense eighteenth century shocker to Toronto in a superb, theatrically précised production ablaze with music. With little more than a bare stage and minimalist lighting, Voicebox weaves a tangled tale of gods and goddesses, heroes, mortals and the damned centring Hippolyte et Aricie squarely in the spotlight where it belongs.

Hippolyte, son of King Thésée of Athens, loves and is loved by Aricie, daughter of his father’s sworn enemy. The goddess Diana takes pity on the ill-fated couple and pledges to protect them. Phèdre, Thésée’s wife, is maddened and frustrated. Lust for Hippolyte consumes her and, although he is her stepson, is determined to seduce him. Shocked by her illicit passion, Hippolyte rejects her. Snatching a dagger, Phèdre attempts to end her life. Returning unexpectedly from an excursion into the underworld to rescue a doomed comrade, Thésée mistakes Hippolyte’s efforts to wrestle the weapon from Phèdre’s grip as an assault on his wife’s virtue. Hippolyte, too noble to reveal Phèdre’s dark secret, flees. Aided by his patron, Neptune, Thésée dispatches a vicious monster to find and kill him. Aricie watches in horror as Hippolyte is devoured in a sheet of flame. Phèdre, tortured by guilt, kills herself but not before confessing her shame to Thésée. Stripped of his crown by Neptune, the disgraced King slips into obscurity. Diana intevenes again, announcing her divine power has safeguarded Hippolyte as foretold. A new King of Athens lives. Aricie and Hippolyte rejoice surrounded by their exultant subjects in Diana’s sunny glade.

Unlike his nemesis, Lully, Rameau was never to have the benefit of first rank collaborators, particularly librettists, on the order of Corneille and Molière. Rameau’s bourgeois background provided him with little in the way of insider access to the elite, ferociously competitive world of Paris opera. A hard-working violinist, church organist and harpsichord player, he would be fifty before he composed Hippolyte et Aricie, effectively launching a self-invented second career.

Although still working within the highly stylized framework of an exclusively French tragi-operatic form, Rameau loosened many of the rigid ties that bound the entire structure together. Music, more than ever, became an instrument of story in Hippolyte et Aricie. The full force of the orchestra is summoned to depict the fearful drama of the opera’s frequent horror scenes. Storm, monster, hell, all are evoked to the point where the audible clash of harpsichord, strings and woodwinds resembles sound effects at times.

Dissonance is a primary tool used by Rameau to emphasize the dark psychology that drives his mythological thriller. There is an unmistakeable undercurrent of perverse eroticism at work here and Rameau’s radical forms and opposed harmonies dazzle with flashes of orchestral lightning. Suffering and anguish, rapture, sweetness and desire all add up to an electrifying musical journey through a primal landscape.

Conductor Kevin Mallon and the eighteen-member Aradia Ensemble do gripping work keeping the action surging forward. Tempi are crisp, harmonies vivid, themes excitingly developed.

Singing Rameau’s title roles, tenor Colin Ainsworth as Hippolyte and soprano Meredith Hall as Aricie fill the St. Lawrence Centre’s Jane Mallett Theatre with enchantment. Ainsworth has a big expansive instrument of a type not commonly associated with early opera. The impact of his spinto-like dynamism brings a compelling urgency to the role of a prince trapped in a swirling whirlpool of fate. It is a credit to Ainsworth’s mastery of passagio, the balance of head and chest voice, that Rameau’s countervailing lyricism is never sacrificed even during moments of full power delivery. Although radically different in nature, Hall’s sound is no less impressive. Her clear, shimmering tone, seemingly infinite and unbounded, embodies the very essence of light and innocence. Without Aricie’s goodness there can be no meaningful corruption festering in the shadows of Rameau’s psychodrama. Hall’s bright, vibrato-free top notes are a ringing declaration of purity.

Artfully embracing the dark side, Alain Coulombe as Thésée and Allyson McHardy as Phèdre present a deliciously dangerous pair. Coulombe’s commanding authority, vocally and dramatically, holds steadfast throughout the full range of his sustained turns on stage. A coloratura-friendly bass is a precious commodity. There is as much suppleness to Coulombe’s stentorian timbre as there is resonance, a quality that must be heard to be believed. The same is true of McHardy’s limber mezzo. Her Phèdre, desolate and frenzied, is a triumph. The tortured queen’s famous Act Four lament, Quelle plainte en ces lieux m’appelle? (“What lamentation in these haunts summons me?”) in which she confesses simultaneous guilt and love for Hippolyte, is delivered with shattering emotion. From lights up to blackout, McHardy astonishes.

Special mention deserves to be made of sopranos Vania Lizbeth Chan as the goddess Diana, Christina Campsall as Aricie’s confidante, Oenone and baritone Max Van Wyck as Pluto. The enthusiasm and artistry of these three fine young talents in their comprimario roles are a key part of this Hippolyte et Aricie’s success.

The Opera in Concert Chorus directed by Robert Cooper is as strong and cohesive as ever. If a chorus can be thought of as a distinct character in its own right, then the rousing blend of voices on offer here amounts to a virtuoso performance of glorious proportions.

Hippolyte et Aricie would not survive the Revolution. Rameau’s trail-blazing opera would languish, like much of the rest of his work, largely forgotten until the late nineteenth century. Berlioz and Debussy would do their best to stimulate new popular appreciation but it was really not until the early music movement of the 1960s and 70s that Rameau’s reputation would be widely reassessed and ultimately restored.

2014 marks the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s death. On both sides of the Atlantic, performances of the great Baroque stylist’s unique works honour his legacy. Voicebox: Opera in Concert can be proud to have added this brave, very special Hippolyte et Aricie to the catalogue of international celebrations.