Psyché 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.