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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Phaéton (1683)
Phaéton – Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Clymène – Ingrid Perruche
Théone, Astrée – Isabelle Druet
Libye – Gaëlle Arquez
Epaphus – Andrew Foster-Williams
Mérops, Automne, Jupiter – Frédéric Caton
Protée, Saturn – Benoît Arnould
Triton, le Soleil – Cyril Auvity
Une heure, une bergère – Virginie Thomas
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques/Christoph Rousset (harpsichord)
rec. live, Salle Pleyel, Paris, 25 October 2012
APARTÉ AP061 [79:00 + 74:00]

Like all the arts at the court of Louis XIV, opera was a political affair. The tale of Phaeton, who gets too close to the sun, sent clear parallels to its first audience at the Sun King’s court, and it cemented Lully’s unassailable position as the head of the Académie Royal de Musique. Like most of Lully’s work, though, it isn’t heard much nowadays, and we should be grateful that Christoph Rousset’s performance is so good that it proves that the opera is of much more than historical interest.

Rousset has assembled a top-notch cast of singers who not only have beautiful voices but are masters of this early baroque style. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro leads the men very capably as Phaéton himself. He puts his light tenor to the service of the part with no loss of heroism or ardour. In fact, he convinces as both the lover and the thrusting, ambitious but doomed hero, and he has mastered the style of the role very convincingly. Andrew Foster-Williams provides a welcome contrast in the bass role of Epaphus, but he too is fully inside the period style and never allows his voice to dominate or overwhelm the proceedings. Benoît Arnould brings a playful, sprightly sense to his two divine cameos. Likewise, Cyril Auvity sounds delightful in his small roles, his high, fluty tenor the most French sounding of the lot.

The ladies are also excellent. Gaëlle Arquez produces a languid, beautiful sound as Libya, and is particularly impressive in her opening aria. Isabelle Drouet makes a delicate, lyrical contrast as Théone, and the blend of her voice with Arquez’s in the opening scene is lovely. She also makes a couple of very distinctive slurs during her remonstrations with Phaéton in the third act, which are presumably a result of Rousset's research into performance practice. Likewise, Ingrid Perruche is a more regal, slightly husky Clymène, pointing up the generational difference between her and the young lovers. The smaller roles, mostly allegorical or divine, fit into the texture very well indeed.

The real attraction comes from the brilliantly realised orchestral sound. It is wonderfully juicy throughout, oozing Baroque character, and it always has a particularly French spring to its step. The perpetual rhythmic vitality also serves as a useful reminder of how important ballet was to all the French arts at this time. In fact, the highlights of the set for me are the ceremonial passages — of which there are several — and the instrumental music that accompanies them, such as the ballet music in the Prologue, the Chaconne that ends Act 2, or the courtly dances in the last two acts. Just as impressive is the way the players can suggest a lot with very little: listen, for example, to the way a pair of violins introduces the third act in the Temple of Isis, a tiny phrase which suggests a smaller, more intimate space through a minimum economy of means. It shows that Les Talens Lyriques know this music, and, more importantly, this style, perhaps better than anyone. It's a delight to listen to them doing so well what they are so good at.

The lion's share of the praise, however, has to go to Rousset himself, not just for his lively, sprung direction, but also for the pretty much continual work he does at the console of his harpsichord. He bears the brunt of the flow of continual arioso in the first act, but throughout he sees to it that things never drag and that the rhythm and ebb of the piece is something always vitally alive. It is his scholarship and interest in the atmosphere and style of the period that makes this set so interesting and worthwhile, and it confirms him as one of the masters of the French Baroque.

The hardback packaging is also an excellent selling-point. It contains full French text with English translation, as well as a scholarly but readable essay on the work’s context. It is also lavishly illustrated with beautiful photos of the exquisite opéra at Versailles, albeit somewhat anachronistically, as it wasn't completed until the reign of Louis XV.

Simon Thompson