These are fine performances, but corner-cutting militates against
their finding an audience.
Students of music history are familiar with the French Baroque form
of the opéra-ballet
, combining singing, dance, and pageantry.
represent an earlier stage form,
dating from the young Lully's collaborations with Molière.
They emphasize comedy, of the ha-ha rather than the classical kind.
In the scene from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
, both the lower-voiced
soloist and his responding trio affect a "character" style; the men's
inflections in the divertissement
from George Dandin
are positively hammy. The comic bass-or-baritone - I'll get to that
- in Monsieur de Pourseaugnac
is recognizably an ancestor of
the nineteenth-century buffo
. The answering tenor squawks his
way through patter that invades counter-tenor territory. Les Plaisirs
de l'île enchantée
takes in various snores and yawns,
along with a fair amount of declamation; it's practically vaudeville.
So, while the music is beautiful and well-wrought, these are pieces
meant to be played for theatrical values rather than purely musical
ones, and so they are presented here. This is where the cost-cutting
comes into play: Warner's skimpy booklet includes no texts at all.
To follow the action requires better French comprehension than my
reasonable but rusty skills permit. Yet - save in the restrained Les
, with its vivid colours and the unearthly beauty
of its male ensemble - you can't just "listen for pleasure": the extra-musical
noises and hoked-up delivery keep getting in the way. In the Pastoral
, I wanted to revel in the strings' almost plush sonority,
but the madrigalesque "comic" singing kept coming as a jolt.
The producers might at least have identified who sings in which piece.
I can only tell you that the soprano in L'amour medicin
herself a pleasing amount of vibrato, while that in Les Plaisirs
de l'île enchantée
, whose low range is warm and caressing,
pushes the straight tones rather fiercely as she ascends. The men
all sound good when they're not busy "acting".
listen to the opera Phaëton
pleasure - in fact, you'd pretty much have to, as we're given no libretto
- as the music is gorgeous. Curiously, at the end of a few numbers,
another dance or recitative begins and is almost immediately faded
out. Is this an artful attempt to elide parts of Lully's score - the
notes are unforthcoming - or merely a theatrical effect cooked up
by conductor Minkowski? Otherwise, the performance is unencumbered
by extraneous distractions.
The orchestral playing is lively and alert, with earthier, less posh-sounding
s than on the other disc; the strings achieve great delicacy
in the lighter textures. The soloists are excellent and responsive,
but, again, we're not told which characters are singing on each track,
which would offer a fighting chance at sorting them out. In track
11 of Phaëton
, the lower of the duetting sopranos, stuck
in a weaker part of her range, doesn't quite balance the higher one.
The give-and-take in track 16 commands attention, though the soprano
takes the vehemence almost over the top. The chorus sings with beautiful
blend and transparency and with splendid rhythmic address in the homophonic
passages, as in track 29.
The choice is yours. The economic constraints presumed necessary for
this mid-priced reissue have rendered it virtually unmarketable to
the general public. Given the quality of the performances, however,
this is probably a must for scholars and enthusiasts.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and
List of performers
Howard Crook - Phaëton
Rachel Yakar - Clymène
Jennifer Smith - Théone
Véronique Gens - Libye
Gérard Théruel - Epaphus
Philippe Huttenlocher - Mérops
Jean-Paul Fouchecourt - Triton, Le Soleil, La Déesse de la
Laurent Naouri - Saturne, Protée
Virginie Pochon - Astrée, Une Heure du jour
Jérôme Varnier - L'Automne, Jupiter
Florence Couderc - Une Bergère, Une Heure du jour
Isabelle Poulenard, Agnès Mellon (sopranos)
Gilles Ragon, Michel Laplénie (tenors)
Michel Verschaeve (baritone)
Bernard Delétré, Philippe Cantor (basses)