Thursday 15 July 2021

Enjoyable, rare and marvellous: Lully's 'Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus' from Les Talens Lyriques

Lully Ballet royal de la Naissance de Venus; Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparte

Lully Ballet royal de la Naissance de Venus; Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparte

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A chance to hear some marvellous music from Lully's prime, showing that his court ballets aren't just dummy runs for his later operas

Whilst Jean-Baptiste Lully's name is forever associated with the development of French opera as tragédie lyrique from the 1670s, prior to this the composer cut his teeth writing ballets. He wrote around 25 such ballets for the French royal court, from 1654 to 1685, as well as developing the comédie-ballet with the playwright Molière. This is music which we often hear in extracted form, and there don't seem to be many of Lully's complete ballets on disc. But a new recording from Christophe Rousset and Les talens lyriques on the Aparté label enables us to hear Lully's complete Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus, which premiered at the Palais Royal (the Louvre) in 1665.

French court ballet is a curious form. First developed in the mid-16th century, the works combined poetry, sung and acted music and dance, along with visual arts, sophisticated sets and costumes. Plots were intended as the glue which held these disparate elements together, but also were designed to showcase the glories of the court or the particular monarch's reign. There was a participatory element, many of the dancers were aristocrats at court of great technical ability, whilst there would also be larger-scale ensemble moments.

It was during the 13-hour (!) Ballet Royal de la Nuit, with music by music by Jean de Cambefort, Jean-Baptiste Boësset, Michel Lambert and others, that premiered in 1653 in Paris that the 14-year-old King Louis XIV (whose dancing of the role of Apollo cemented his epithet as the Sun King) came to regard a young Italian musician and dancer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Within a month, Lully had been made royal composer for instrumental music.

Designs for the Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653)
Designs for the Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653)

Lully wrote music for everything, hastily assembled events and grands ballets designed to showcase the talents of the young court. And we should remember it was young. When Lully turned away from ballet toward opera in 1670 (and King Louis XIV gave up dancing), the king was still only 32. Over the space of 20 years he would take part in 25 court ballets in 70 roles, both comic and serious. The librettist for that ballet back in 1653 was the poet Isaac de Benserade (1613-1691) with whom Lully would collaborate on a whole series of ballets, including Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus, all clearly structured and themed. The instrumentalists would be based around a five-part string group with wind players taken from the King's various ensembles. The scores evidently rarely mention instrumentation, so modern interpreters have some latitude.

The vocal and choral music is interweaved with the dance, so that each group of dances is preceded by short vocal moments. This would be developed further by Lully in his operas, so that each act of the opera would often end in a grand danced and sung moment which was linked to the plot.

On this disc we hear the Ballet royal de la Naissance de Venus from 1665, which was one of the more important ballets from the 1660s and was a compliment to the king's sister-in-law, Madame (wife of his brother), Henriette, the youngest daughter of King Charles I of England (who was married to King Louis XIV's aunt). It was moderately successful, receiving nine performances. Madame (age 21) appeared in the first scene, being birthed as Venus whilst her husband, Philippe, Duc d'Orleans (age 25) was the Morning Star in the second scene, and the king (age 27) finally appeared as Alexander the Great in the final scene (with Madame as Roxana). In all there were 106 different roles performed by 96 individuals, 20 musicians and 14 singers! From the libretto we know the names of the musicians, how many there were and what instruments some of them played.

I can think of no better way of getting introduced to Lully's ballet music than via this compact yet imaginative work in this wonderfully engaging, stylish and characterful performance. Granted, it is tricky to imagine the sheer spectacle of the original, but there is plenty of interest and contrast in the music. 

As the ballet does not fill a full disc, we are also treated to a short sequence of music from Lully's other ballets, from the Ballet royal des Amour deguisés (from 1664), Psyché (his most developed comédie-ballet with Molière from 1671), Le Carnaval (from 1675) and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (again with Molière from 1670).

Michel de Marolles said 1656 that the ballets featured 'that which is enjoyable, rare and marvellous' - precisely.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) - Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus
Jean-Baptiste Lully - music from Ballet royal des Amour déguisés, Psyché, Le Carnaval, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
Deborah Cachet, Benedicte Tauran, Ambroisine Bre, Cyril Auvity, Samuel Namotte, Guillaume Andrieux, Philippe Estephe
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset
Recorded at the Cite de la musique - Philharmonie de Paris, January 2021
Aparte AP255 1CD [79:00]

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