Sunday, 30 November 2014

Lully's Amadis - an operatic Game of Thrones?

Lully - Amadis - Les Talens Lyriques
Lully Amadis; Auvity, Perruche, van Wanroij, Les Talens Lyriques; Aparte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Recorded in the theatre at Versailles, an involving new recording of Lully's tragedie en musique

Lully's operas, his tragedies en musique, are something of a guilty pleasure and still do not receive the exposure of those of Rameau. His sequence of 14 tragedies en musique, produced between 1673 and 1687, were all created for the entertainment of the King. Though the plots were all high minded and full of mythological or aristocratic characters with noble ideals, the discursive nature of the drama with its choruses, scenic spectaculars and extensive use of dance, was designed to delight both the ear and the eye. The result is very much akin to a series like the Game of Thrones. When listening to it, you have to accept that the musico-dramatic power of a particular moment will then be apparently dispersed as dancers assemble to pay homage, render service or some such excuse. Shorn of the visuals, the operas need to be highly vividly performed to make an impact with a group of soloists who can bring distinctive style to the music.

Lully's Amadis, written like all the tragedies en musique with a libretto by Philippe Quinault, was the 11th in the series and the first to use a non-mythological plot. The plot was chosen by King Louis XIV who, as a young man, had enjoyed reading the Romances about the knightly adventures of Amadis. In the opera the chivalric knight does no derring do but is laid low by love. His beloved, Oriane, does not believe he loves her and he is trapped by a wicked sorceress Arcabonne and her brother Arcalaus. As a sort of sub-plot there is a second pair of lovers, Florestan and Corisande, who also get caught up on Arcabonne's plans. Moving away from mythology to a chivalric world seems to have enlived Lully and Quinault, and Amadis has less of the sense of routine that Lully's operas can have; the feeling that you are listening to a well made machine. The prologue is sung by a pair of sorcerers Urgande and Alquif, and Urgande pops up in Act Four of the opera as a sort of deus ex-machina to release Amadis from his fate at the hands of Arcabonne.

The opera does not seem to have been highly popular on disc, and the only other complete recording that I can come across is a live one made in 2006. This set disc from  Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques and Choeur de Chambre de Namur on the Aparte label was rather appropriately recorded in the theatre at the Chateau de Versailles. Though in fact the theatre was not completed until nearly a century after the opera was written, during Lully's time operas at Versailles were put on in a temporary theatre. Cyril Auvity takes the title role of Amadis, with Judith van Wanroij as his beloved Oriane, Ingrid Perruche is Arcabonne, with Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Arcalaus, Benoit Arnould as Florestan, aand Hasnaa Bennani as Corisande.

Neither Amadis nor Oriane is particularly admirable in the opera. He might have been a hero, but Amadis spends the entire opera mooning about and is easily caught by Arcabonne and Arcalaus. Oriane is no better, she starts the work moaning that Amadis does not love her any more and, despite plenty of evidence that he does, it takes his apparent death and an entire opera to convince her. The most vivid role is the sorceress Arcabonne who falls in love with Amadis and can't bear to kill him.

Having seen Cyril Auvity in a number of smaller haut-contre roles it is lovely to hear him in the title role. He has a highly arresting and characterful voice. His singing is stylish and elegant, but not always completely lyrically easy. But the results bring Amadis to life and there is never any possibility of him sinking into the aural background. Judith van Wanroij as Oriane is all style and slimline, fine-grained tone. She gets little to do except lament, and does so finely especially in her Act Four scene where she is tricked into thinking Amadis is dead.

Ingrid Perruche is wonderfully vivid as Arcabonne and judging from the discs alone, I would not be surprised if on stage she really ate the scenery. The down side to this is that an element of wildness can creep into Perruche's performance with quite a strong vibrato, but balance this with a good sense of style and a vivid feel for the drama in the music. Her brother Arcalaus is a much smaller role, but Edwin Crossley-Mercer displays a lovely flexible baritone voice.

As the secondary lovers Florestan and Corisande, Benoit Arnoud and Hasnaa Bennani are all style, elegance and fluid expressivility. They bring everything you might wish to the music and make a good foil for the strongly characterised voices of the principals. Benedicte Tauran and Pierrick Boisseau are similarly stylish.

As important is the contribution from Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques. Rousset paces the opera nicely and keeps Lully's sometimes schematic acts from seeming routine. He and the orchestra bring a vivid liveliness to the rhythms and a nice freshness to the music which makes you want to listen. The recording was made in association with live performances at Versailles and this shows in the lively and involving style of the performance.

A whole generation singers has now grown up performing French baroque music and we are now able to take for granted that Rousset's performers are able to perform Lully's music and simply sit back and enjoy the lovely detail of their performances with some elegantly expressive ornamenations.

The CD booklet is stylishly done and includes full text and translations. Rather frustratingly though, the libretto does not have the CD track numbers printed in it so you cannot easily dip in and out.

You probably do not need every single Lully opera on your library shelves, and Amadis does not quite have the great moments such as the sleep scene in Atys but Amadis' lovely Bois epais has developed a life of its own. On this disc Rousset and his cast bring the opera to such life that they make a really strong case for the opera, in this dramatic and involving performance.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 - 1687) - Amadis (1684)
Amadis - Cyril Auvity (haut-contre)
Oriane - Judith van Wanrolj (soprano)
Arcabonne - Ingrid Perruche (soprano)
Arcalaus - Edwin Crossley-Mercer (baritone)
Florestan - Benoit Arnould (baritone)
Urgande - Benedicte Tauran (soprano)
Corisande - Hasnaa Bennani (soprano)
Alquif, Ardan Canile - Pierrick Boisseau
Other solos, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Caroline Wynants, Virginie Thomas
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (director)
Recorded 4,5,6 July 2013 at l'Opera Royal du Chateau de Versailles
APARTE AP094 3CD's [42.46, 64.58, 56.21]
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