Saturday 9 March 2013

Modified rapture - Lully's Phaeton at the Barbican

Jean-Baptiste Lully
First off, I have to admit that seeing Phaeton was the first time that I'd ever seen a complete Lully opera live, so the experience was novel in many ways. Lully's music can often seem a little unimaginative when compared to Charpentier and Rameau, but he had a strong feeling for dramatic construction so that the long work (three hours of music) worked superbly as an entertainment, we were never bored. But I was left wondering whether the piece works as drama.

There was a large cast, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as Phaeton, Ingrid Perruche as his mother Clymene, Isabelle Druet as Theone who loves him, Sophie Bevan as her friend Libye who is daughter of the King of Egypt, Andrew Foster-Williams as Epahus who loves Libye, Matthew Brook as Merops (and Automne and Jupiter) plus Benoit Arnould, Cyril Auvity and Virginie Thomas in a number of roles, plus the Namur Chamber Choir.

It was one of those baroque operas where at the opening you are wondering who all these people are. The Barbican centre made the mistake of dropping the lights so much that it was difficult to read the programme, which made working out the plot logistics rather tricky. This was one of those occasions that having a libretto would be very useful indeed, as surtitles don't print the name of the character who is singing. Still, we worked things out in the end.

There was some superb singing, but the problem with the opera is that the characters don't really develop very much. We can decry Handel and his dependence on star singers with the need to give them a certain number of arias, but this at least meant that Handel was able to develop expand characters - just think how well he illuminates facets of Cleopatra's character over her seven arias. Here Lully was less interested in that, it was more stylised. But the moments of strong emotion were very striking.

Ingrid Perruche was great in the moment when Clymene discovers in a prophecy that her son Phaeton is doomed. Sophie Bevan and Andrew Foster-Williams were highly sympathetic and stylish the doomed lovers, whose story threaded its way through the plot and, rather oddly, was left as a loose end at the conclusion. Isabelle Druet, displaying a wonderfully characterful and very French toned voice which was edged with vinegar in just the right way, manage to make Theone one of the central characters, you really felt her emotion developing.

Matthew Brook, Cyril Auvity and Benoit Arnould were strong in a variety of roles, with Auvity displaying his superbly stylish haut-contre.

The title role is rather a small role, also a haut-contre, and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was a bit stiff and proper and seemed to push the voice a bit too much in the top range.. Of course, being based on French classic dramatic rules, the death of Phaeton was done in narration and Lully's music does not really actually describe the action, and the ending was frankly a bit perfunctory. Still we did not have the spectacular sets of the original.

The Namur Chamber Choir were effective, with beautifully shaped lines; one of the innovations of Lully's style of opera was to incorporate significant choral parts.

Rousset and the orchestra were superbly stylish, and we had plenty of time to admire them in the long sets of dances; it was here that I did rather miss a staging. And I do rather think that it would be highly illuminating to produce Lully's Thesee and Handel's Teseo side by side, Handel's opera being based on Lully's original so we could compare and contrast.

A fantastic performance, but modified rapture when it comes to Lully's complete opera.

My full review is on

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