Jean-Philippe Rameau's Dardanus is typical of his works for the operatic stage: it contains innovative music of great inspiration and dramatic sensitivity, and it caused a public controversy at the time of its premiere. Rameau, who was a respected theorist and writer as well as a composer, employed harmonic devices, orchestrations, and a range of emotional expression that some listeners found grotesque, especially those who favored the works of his predecessors, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully's works were more typical of the period than were those of Rameau, especially in their relatively understated orchestrations and use of secco (dry) recitative -- done with only keyboard accompaniment. For those who valued tradition over innovation, Rameau's work -- full of dramatic instrumentation and accompanied recitatives (performed with orchestra) -- was simply too adventuresome and, although Rameau's more forward-looking style would eventually win out, the conflict between the supporters of Rameau and Lully makes for one of opera history's more colorful chapters.
Based on Greek mythology, the libretto, by Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruère, tells the story of Jupiter's son, Dardanus, and his war with The king of Phrygia. Bruère's libretto represents opera seria at both its most grand and its most absurd: the numerous processions, dream scenes and intrigues brought out the best in Rameau's dramatic writing, but the plot was so laden with supernatural events and interventions that it became a caricature of itself. For this reason, Dardanus was a less-than-spectacular success at its premiere (Paris Opéra, November 1739), and underwent at least two extensive revisions, the first of which completely discarded the last three acts. Subsequent versions placed a greater emphasis on human relationships and simplified the plot -- steps that were necessary for the sake of clarity and cohesion, but which also involved the removal of excellent music. Modern revivals of Dardanus have attempted to find an effective middle ground, keeping as much as possible of Rameau's colorful writing while trimming the plot into a coherent form -- often with great success.