JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY (1632 – 1687): Phaéton, LWV 61—E. Gonzalez Toro (Phaéton), I. Perruche (Clymène), I. Druet (Théone, Astrée), G. Arquez (Libye), A. Foster-Williams (Épaphus), F. Caton (Mérops, Automne, Jupiter), B. Arnould (Protée, Saturne), C. Auvity (Triton, le Soleil, la déesse de la Terre), V. Thomas (Une Heure, une bergère égyptienne); Chœur de Chambre de Namur; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 25 October 2012; Aparté AP061; 2CD, 153:00; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, and major music retailers]
The aficionado of the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully who peruses the performance diaries of those theatres and festivals that are friendly to Baroque repertory might justifiably ask, 'Où est Maître Lully?' Throughout the world and even to some extent in France, Lully's invitations to many important fêtes Baroques are seemingly lost in the post. Otherwise, how is the absence of the presiding genius in the refinement of tragédie en musique from celebrations of Baroque music to be explained, especially in an age in which the operas of Rameau are recorded more frequently than those of Gounod or Massenet? There is no accounting for taste, it is said, but it seems bizarre that ears pleased by the music of Rameau should be any less gratified by Lully's groundbreaking works. The sort of generalized, all-purpose singing that might get a singer through Händel operas with some degree of credibility falls flat in Lully's music, however: the earnest Hagen moonlighting as an acceptable Achilla or Garibaldo is unlikely to duplicate his success as Apollon or Roland. Much as they benefit like any other works from keen musicality, the operas of Lully demand a style of singing that remains in short supply. This inevitably limits the numbers of performances that these innovative scores receive, but it also has the effect of making a stylish performance of a Lully opera a legitimate event. The October 2012 concert performance of Phaéton—the first in the succession of tragédies en musique with which Lully conquered Versailles—in Salle Pleyel was indeed an event, and the release of Aparté’s recording of the performance, which brought together an uncommonly homogeneous cast of expert singers with Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset, is an occasion for rejoicing.
It is only natural that an ensemble whose name is taken from an emblematic opera of the French Baroque, Rameau’s 1739 Les Fêtes d’Hébé, should consistently show such facile mastery of the unique idioms of that musical epoch. Though the score is often beautiful beyond words, Phaéton is not Lully’s strongest opera, its plot of contrived rivalries and conflicting ambitions progressing at too lugubrious a pace to fully engage the listener. It is an opera that takes well to being performed in concert, then, and Aparté’s engineers have recorded this concert performance with impeccable artistry of their own, beautifully capturing the sonic ambiance of Salle Pleyel without allowing the audience to intrude too significantly upon the delicate sonic landscape of Lully’s music. This is not the first commercial recording of Phaéton, of course, but in many aspects—not the least of which is the vibrancy of a gifted cast drawing energy from an audience—this recording clearly becomes the Phaéton of choice both for those who love the opera and for those who have not yet made its acquaintance. The singing of the Chœur de Chambre de Namur, a perfectly-blended ensemble of twenty singers, is consistently assured and quite wonderful in ‘Dieux! Quel feu vient partout s’étendre!’ and ‘Ô dieu qui lancez le tonnerre’ in Act Five. Carefully-balanced but never ‘churchy,’ the Chœur’s singing is ideally scaled to match the dramatic import of every phrase of the text. From the first note of the Ouverture, the playing of Les Talens Lyriques displays an unforced grace that many period-instrument ensembles fail to produce even in multiple takes in the recording studio: it is all the more laudable that the gifted instrumentalists of Les Talens Lyriques, obviously meticulously rehearsed, achieve such reliably euphonious sounds in a single live performance. The continuo group—consisting of Emmanuel Jacques on cello, François Joubert-Caillet on viola da gamba, Laura Mónica Pustilnik on lute, Stéphane Fuget on harpsichord and organ, and Maestro Rousset on harpsichord—provide sharply-defined impetus to the performance, shaped by beguiling, historically-appropriate renderings of the cadences that differ so markedly from those of contemporaneous Italian music. Les Talens Lyriques’ playing of the great Chaconne that serves as an entr’acte of sorts before Act Three exhibits the aristocratic elegance and razor’s-edge rhythmic precision that are the very essence of the French Baroque, and every scene of the opera benefits from a realization of the instrumental complement that perfectly serves its dramatic needs.
The Prologue, an allegorical homage to Lully’s patron Louis XIV—here entitled, with an unmistakable smattering of flattery, ‘Le Retour de l’Âge d’Or’ (‘The Return of the Golden Age’)—of the type that became typical in Lully’s operas, is an exchange between Astrée and Saturne, eloquently sung by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet and bass-baritone Benoît Arnould. Ms. Druet returns in the opera proper as Théone, the daughter of the sea god Proteus and Phaéton’s discarded lover. It is to Théone that Phaéton is betrothed when his mother, Clymène, awakens his ambitions for power, and it is she who most touchingly laments his ultimate fate in ‘Changez ces doux concerts en des plaintes funèbres.’ Considering the legitimacy of her indignation, it is hardly surprising that Lully characterized Théone with sublime music, which Ms. Druet sings with warm, flowing tone. Mr. Arnould also contributes powerfully to the tragédie, appropriately taking the rôle of Protée, Théone’s prophesying father. To Protée falls the unenviable task of foretelling the death of his daughter’s beloved, but Mr. Arnould performs the task with focused, forceful tone that imbues the music with the gravitas of the text.
Singing the parts of Triton (Clymène’s brother), le Soleil (the Sun God), and la déesse de la Terre (the Earth goddess), tenor Cyril Auvity—one of the most talented exponents of the perilous haute-contre repertory unique to French opera—tears through Lully’s music with a voice of starlit intensity. Triton’s efforts at extracting previews of coming events from Protée draw singing of exceptional charm from Mr. Auvity, augmented by heady vigor as his annoyance at Protée’s shape-shifting efforts at avoiding sharing his auguries grows. His performances of the Sun and the Earth goddess—no ground-shaking Erda, this terrestrial deity—are intriguingly contrasted. Soprano Virginie Thomas also nicely differentiates her appearances as an Hour in the Act Four scene set in the Palace of the Sun, giving a lovely account of ‘Ô dieu de la clarté, vous réglez la mesure,’ and an Egyptian shepherdess in Act Five, where her fresh voice shines in the air ‘Ce beau jour ne permet qu’à l’aurore.’ Bass-baritone Frédéric Caton is enlisted for triple duty as Mérops (King regnant of Egypt), Automne (Autumn), and Jupiter. An experienced presence in performances of French Baroque music, Mr. Caton brings to each of his rôles in Phaéton vibrant tones matched by insightful delivery of text. His portrayal of Jupiter is suitably grandiose, and his singing of Mérops is unassailably and slightly bemusedly regal.
Libye, Mérops’s daughter and heiress to the Egyptian throne, is sung with expaniveness and firmly lustrous tone befitting a tragic heroine. Libye, too, falls victim to Phaéton’s and Clymène’s scheming, her father convinced by her duplicitous stepmother—Clymène, that is—to set aside her intended husband and consort, Épaphus, in preference for Phaéton. Phaéton being the opera’s subject, Lully and his eventually-frequent librettist, Philippe Quinault, granted Libye a somewhat perfunctory resolution to her tribulations, but mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez makes the most of every musical and dramatic opportunity given to her. ‘Heureuse une âme indifférente!’ in Act One, ‘Que l’incertitude est un rigoureux tourment!’ and ‘Quel malheur!’ in Act Two, and the deeply emotional ‘Ô rigoureux martyre’ in Act Five all inspire Ms. Arquez to fantastic singing, her use of tonal shading in the service of dramatic verisimilitude as sure as her tasteful deployment of Lully’s ornamentation. She is partnered with finesse and bountiful tonal beauty by the Épaphus of bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. Comfortable in a wide repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams’s resonant voice and faultlessly-trained technique find a handsomely-appointed home in Baroque music. Mr. Foster-Williams’s singing seethes with anger and exasperation in Épaphus’s confrontation with Phaéton in Act Three, and his exchanges with Libye are saturated by sorrow and palpable affection. Throughout the performance, Mr. Foster-Williams produces a tide of golden sound upon which Lully’s music sails gloriously.
Clymène possesses every quality required to be a monumental operatic villainess: arrogant, duplicitous, power-hungry, manipulative, and even briefly remorseful, she is, like Händel’s Agrippina, as covetous of being Queen Mother as ever she was of being Queen Consort. She is ruthless but strangely sympathetic, Lully having given her music of refinement that transcends her cruel motives. There are in her Act Three pleas for Phaéton to abandon his quest for the throne, ‘Le Ciel trouble votre bonheur,’ suggestions of true maternal love, and these are the most memorable moments in soprano Ingrid Perruche’s performance. So impassioned is her singing that her fear for her son’s safety touches the heart more than any sentiment expressed by this character has the right to do. Perhaps it would not be so were Ms. Perruche’s voice not so achingly beautiful, here and throughout the performance. Lully gave Clymène surprising depths of nuance, and Ms. Perruche fills those depths with a sea of sparkling tone. Were there only her voice to appreciate, Ms. Perruche should be a winning Clymène, but she aligns her verdant singing with uncanny instincts for finding the most poignant aspects of her rôle and flinging them like rose petals into the hands of the listener.
The dexterity and sheer unreservedness with which tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro traverses Phaéton’s music are astounding. Though very different in style and vocal demands, Phaéton’s music hovers in the sort of tessitura that, in the operas of Bellini, annihilates even very accomplished tenor voices. Knowing precisely how the haute-contre singers of the 17th and 18th Centuries trained and sounded is no more possible than attaining similar knowledge of castrati, but the at least partial lingering of the tradition well into the 19th Century, still evident in a rôle like Nadir in Bizet’s 1863 Les pêcheurs de perles, suggests that the haute-contre tradition made use of a highly-cultivated form of voix mixte rather than the more straightforward falsetto employed in travesti rôles in Italian (especially Neapolitan) Baroque opera. Mr. Gonzalez Toro’s repertory is not restricted to haute-contre parts, but his mastery of the fiendish demands of this style of singing is apparent in every note that he sings in Phaéton. Like Ms. Perruche, Mr. Gonzalez Toro inspires an unexpected awakening of sympathy. Beginning as a rather petulant but endearingly fun-loving fellow, his Phaéton’s worldview is darkened by his mother’s vision of his ascent to the throne, and his arrogance as the offspring of the Sun ultimately seems more political than personal. It is true that he is none too noble in casting off Théone or making it clear that his pursuit of Libye is solely the product of ambition, but Mr. Gonzalez Toro manages to make Phaéton an unexpectedly amiable figure. In every note of his music, he displays the sort of charisma that might colloquially be termed ‘star quality,’ and his is a performance that outclasses similar efforts by his most celebrated rivals in this repertory.
Historical records suggest that Phaéton was first performed at Versailles in 1683 with only rudimentary staging, so presenting the opera in concert is an apt recreation of its origins. At any rate, all of the gargantuan stage effects for which French Baroque operas were renowned are artfully conveyed by Lully’s music, and freedom from the stylized acting required by many productions of French Baroque operas surely affords the singers greater opportunities for shapely singing. Perhaps because they do not contain the sort of music that can be capably sung by any aspiring singer who has spent a term in conservatory, Lully’s operas have generally fared well on records; better, in fact, on records than in the world’s opera houses and concert halls, where they continue to be seldom heard. After Mozart’s Idomeneo, subjects drawn from mythology plummeted from popularity as surely as Phaéton on his ill-fated solar journey, but if audiences can embrace Richard Strauss’s dalliances with Ariadne and Helen of Troy why must the mythical incarnations in Lully’s operas remain ignored? A perfect Phaéton voice is no more common than an ideal Bacchus or Menelaus, but could a cast, chorus, orchestra, and conductor be assembled anywhere in the world today who could perform Ariadne auf Naxos or Die ägyptische Helena as thrillingly as Phaéton is executed by the personnel recorded by Aparté?