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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Psyché [173:42]

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) -  Psyché; Karina Gauvin (soprano) -  Venus; Aaron Sheehan (tenor) -  L'Amour; Colin Balzer (tenor) -  Vulcain; Amanda Forsythe (soprano) -  Aglaure; Mireille Lebel (mezzo) -  Cidippe; Yulia Van Doren (soprano) -  Femme Affligée; Olivier Laquerre (bass) -  Le Roy; Jason McStoots (tenor) -  Zephire; Matthew Shaw (baritone) -  Jupiter; Aaron Engebreth (baritone) -  Lychas; Ricard Bordas (counter-tenor) -  Bacchus; Teresa Wakim (soprano) -  Flore; José Lemos (counter-tenor) -  Silene
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Paul O'Dette; Stephen Stubbs
rec. 28 June-1 July 2007, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, USA. DDD
CPO 7773672
[3 CDs: 50:06 + 57:28 + 66:08]


Experience Classicsonline

is an intriguing work; in many ways it's experimental. It uses a wide span of styles, techniques and dramatic and musical registers to achieve its impact. This excellent new recording - the only version of Psyché currently available - is revealing and at the same time a superb synthesis of multiple sources. A huge success.

The libretto was written by Thomas Corneille (1625-1709), who was the brother of Pierre - the greatest dramatist of Lully's age after Molière. The opera went through a number of versions between 1671 and 1678. Under Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus capture the excitement, novelty and innovation of the tragedy's evolution.

It's a tragedy of love and jealousy - an allegory cast in the relationships between gods and humans, mortals and immortals, tests and trials. Carolyn Sampson's Psyché is the major tour de force; the opera revolves around her - and her dealings with Venus (Karina Gauvin) and Cupid (Aaron Sheehan). These performers, and indeed all the supporting characters, succeed by taking the music at face value; by immersing themselves in the dramatic tensions and momentum of the work. Typical of this approach is the tenderness and intensity of the duets; listen to the dialogue of the short scene 5 (Act II) [CD2 tr.9], for example. Every syllable clear and pointed, the texture of voice and accompaniment just at the right point between spare and special. The articulation expressive without a hint of self-consciousness. Similarly the moments of exhilaration ("Celebrons Ce Grand Jour" [CD3 tr.12]) are neither overdone, nor do they hold back. Indeed each section of the orchestra plays with aplomb, style and utterly convincing musicianship. Woodwind, strings, percussion stand out as much for their brisk and clear attack as the continuo players do for subtlety and sophistication.

As with so much of Lully's music, dance is central to the presentation, the mood and to our enjoyment. Dance is here in Psyché in quantity too. Especially the striking last long dance. Indeed the work's original title was Psyché Tragi-comédie et Ballet. But the music is graced throughout by the familiar dotted syncopation that moves the music forward so pleasingly. Lully nevertheless provides great variety in the composition … after vigour is release, after speculative singing a touch of tension, after arioso chorus - and so on.

The opening of Act IV, for example, ranges from the tender and ethereally beautiful (the ritornello and prélude [CD3 tr.s1,2]), via driven soliloquy ("Si je fais Vanité…" [CD3 tr.7]) to the almost rustic (the air, "Venez, Nymphes De l'Archeron"[CD3 tr.4]). It is to the great credit of Stubbs, O'Dette and their singers and players that such potentially disparate styles as explored by Lully at a time of such dynamism in the development of musical theatre, opera, are so effectively pulled together and made now into such a satisfying whole. A degree of detachment, mixed with great professionalism and a wealth of technical versatility is required in order to project to the listeners the generalities as well as the specifics of the work.

The principals and instrumentalists play each number not only as if they had known it for years (perhaps they all have!) but - significantly - with full and meticulous recognition of its place in the wider work. In other words, the production has been conceived as a whole, as something determined to communicate a complex and meaningful whole - rather than a series of songs and dances, however tuneful and delightful. The characterisation by Sampson and Gauvin of Psyché against Venus at the start of Act III [CD2 tr.s14,15], for example, is as gripping and compelling as anything Verdi wrote.

Furthermore, Lully wrote Psyché in an atmosphere where artists of the 1670s were producing works of ever greater self-confidence thanks to the more mature adoption of  classical models and a move towards greater lyricism. This openness was borne of a delight in the very processes of building dance, poetry, stage spectacle and melody into a courtly production with appreciative patrons and audience. Somehow this recording emphasises the expansiveness and joy that these changes must have sponsored at the time. The sequence of scenes drawn together sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, almost, from the frenetic opera style of Handel. There is a sense of peace and accomplishment in the conversion of allegory to human concerns that sets the genre apart. Lully was at its very centre. Stubbs, O'Dette and their forces have not so much breathed life into the work as stood back and wafted its own energy in our direction.

There is a dignity beyond the usual in the way each charismatic alternation between joviality, joke, joy and profound, perceptiveness, pensiveness is brought out. Neither is the theatricality overplayed in the pace of this performance, nor the beauty of such moments as that in the last scene of Act III, say, [CD2 tr.20] lost. Almost as though the singers were participating to demonstrate 'method-acting' mixed with family therapy with a smile - bravi!

The recording is clean, forward and nicely resonant. The booklet that comes with the three CDs is exceptionally well produced with essays, photographs (albeit somewhat small), the libretto, synopsis and timeline, biographies of the performers and useful background to the production and the Boston Festival.

This is a recording to be snapped up, then. It's to be hoped that, as a result of the high standard set here, Psyché might be heard more often. This is certainly a recording to which one can return time and again, deriving something new and deeper each time.

Mark Sealey



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