Friday 26 January 2018

Seeing the genre develop: Lully & Quinault's second tragédie en musique, Alceste

Lully - Alceste - Aparte
Lully Alceste; Judith Van Wanroij, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Les Talens Lyriques, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Christophe Rousset; Aparte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 19 2018
Star rating: 4.0

A rarity on disc, Lully's second tragédie en musique in highly recommendable performance

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have reached Lully's Alceste which premiered in 1673. The 2 disc set, on Aparte, features Judith Van Wanroij as Alceste, Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Alcide and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as Admete, with Christophe Rousset directing Les Talens Lyriques and Choeur de Chambre de Namur.

Alceste was Lully and Quinault's second of their thirteen tragédies en musique. It came at a time when Lully and Quinault were effectively inventing the genre, and it is fascinating listening to the opera and hearing how they are still feeling their way, including elements which would be later droped. Their first tragédie en musique, Cadmus & Hermione was effectively the first time that French opera had invested in tragedy, prior to Lully and Quinault's innovation French composers had written mainly comedy and pastoral works. The venture into tragedy was not popular in all areas, but the operas were very much to the taste of King Louis XIV.

Though based on Euripides, the opera's libretto made many changes to the classical story. Copying contemporary opera, Lully and Quinault added comic characters though with later tragédies en musique they would move away from this and concentrate on pure tragedy. Also with the story of Alceste and Admete, there were a number of liberties including creating a love triangle with Alcide (Hercules), who rescues Alceste from Hades.

Quinault provides Lully with plenty of opportunities for diverse effects, ranging from battle scenes to the funeral scenes. It is perhaps, not Lully's most intense tragedy, and later essays in the genre would display greater maturity. But in terms of variety of musical genres, and his handling of the orchestra, the work is full of delights. I have to confess to being particularly struck by the mourning for Alceste in Act Three, but there are livelier delights too.

Being used to Gluck's more concentrated approach to the story, the way Lully and Quinault introduces not only lively divertissements but comic servants is somewhat disconcerting. As well as the love triangle between Alceste, Admete and Alcide, there is a parallel love triangle between their comic servants, Cephise, Lycomede and Straton.

Judith Van Wanroij makes a poised and noble Alceste with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro as an intense Admete, perhaps his voice not as relaxed at top as ideal but it certainly conveys the character's travails particularly in the striking scene when he wakes from his illness and realises he is now without Alceste. The pair's duet of parting in Act Two is highly affecting, whilst they are similarly moving in the scene in the final act where the two demonstrate their love, despite Alceste being promised to Alcide. Edwin Crossley-Mercer makes a fine upstanding Alcide, who reveals is nobility at the end by giving up Alceste.

The remaining characters are all very well taken, with many singers in multiple roles. Ambroisine Bre, Douglas Williams and Etienne Bazola make a delightful trio of servants, as well as popping up in other roles. The servants are not entirely comic, Alceste's confidante Cephise (Ambroisine Bre) has some wonderfully intense moments lamenting Alceste in Act Three, and a delightful solo in the joyful celebrations at the end of the opera.

As ever Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques bring the music to live, and clearly enjoy Lully's rythmic and melodic felicities.

Alceste is quite a rarity on disc, the last complete recording seems to have been by Jean-Claude Malgloire in the 1990s. So this makes this new recording doubly welcome. If you only want one or two of Lully's operas in your library, then perhaps Rousset's Armide [see my review] is a better place to start. But if you are interested in how the genre developed, then this rarity is very welcome.

Alceste, ou le triomphe d’Alcide
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Alceste, La Gloire - Judith Van Wanroij
Alcide - Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Admète, 2e Triton - Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Céphise, Nymphe des Tuileries, Proserpine - Ambroisine Bré
Lycomède, Charon - Douglas Williams
Cléante, Straton, Pluton, Éole - Étienne Bazola
Nymphe de la Marne, Thétis, Diane - Bénédicte Tauran
Nymphe de la Seine, Une Nymphe, Une Ombre - Lucía Martín Cartón
Lychas, Phérès, Alecton, Apollon, 1er Triton, Suivant de Pluton - Enguerrand de Hys
Chœur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset
Recorded at the Salle Gaveau, Paris, 13,15, 16 July 2017
APARTE AP164 2CDs [80.00, 70.59]
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Celebrating Estonian style - the distinctively stylish Estonian Voices - concert review
  • 1768: A Retropective - Chiara Skerath, Katy Bircher, Ian Page, The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • The Schuman's at Home - Julius Drake and Sophie Bevan at Temple Music - concert review
  • Eavesdropping on David Pountney rehearsing Verdi's La forza del destino at Welsh National Opera - feature article
  • Chants d'amour - Louise Alder and James Baillieu in Mozart, Bizet, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Faure, Liszt at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • The Phantom of the Opera - still going strong after 30 years - music theatre review
  • Hortus Musicus: Jerusalem - Early music and traditional melodies from this Estonian group - CD review
  • Handel's rarely done Lotario emerges as far less of a problem opera in this engaging performance from a young cast at Göttingen festival - CD review
  • A Fancy: 17th century English theatre music from a French ensemble - CD review
  • Jazz-inspired in Cologne: Junge Deutscher Philharmonie & Ingo Metzmacher in Harrison Birtwistle, Rolf Liebermann, Bernard Herrmann - concert review
  • 17th century French lute music: Tombeaux - a secular requiem from Richard MacKenzie - CD review
  • Mendelssohn in Cologne: Elijah from the Kölner Philharmonie - Concert review
  • All round achievement: Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse - Opera review
  • Home

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