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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632 – 1687)
Amadis - tragédie lyrique (1684) [164:05]
Cast & performance details below review
rec. live, 4-6 July 2013, Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles. DDD
APARTÉ AP094 [3 CDs: 42:46 + 64:58 + 56:21]

Christophe Rousset has been championing the revival of Lully’s “tragédies lyriques” with a whole sequence of recordings of which this release is the latest. In fact, “Amadis” made a break from that genre with its dependence upon the mythological by adapting it. This extended to including such innovations as the linking of the prologue to the main action, magical events, demons and taking as its subject the story of the 16th century Spanish chivalric Romance “Amadis de Gaula”, simultaneously identifying Louis XIV’s virtues with those of the tale’s hero. This sycophancy displayed in both the dedication by Jean de La Fontaine on behalf of the composer and the libretto itself by Philippe Quinault seems either somewhat repellent or risible to modern sensibilities but “autres temps, autres mœurs”. We need first to consider the context of its era then judge the music on its own merits rather than take its moral temperature. The opera enjoyed enormous success, being performed regularly from its premiere in Paris in 1684 until 1772.

Some official commentators have been raving about this music; this amateur reviewer is less enraptured but to express anything less lays me open to the charge of a lack of musical sophistication and receptivity. Nonetheless, I found that at two and three-quarters of an hour long this entertainment contained more than its fair shares of longueurs. Also the content itself can seem very stylised and stilted to a twenty-first century listener. There is a constant emphasis upon the supremacy of courage and honour in conflict with the demands of courtly love. Strangely, I do not experience this reaction anywhere near as acutely in Early Opera of the Italian school. Monteverdi holds my attention because I find it much easier to identify with Orfeo’s grief and to revel in the sensuality of the amorous duetting of Nerone and Poppea than I am able to respond to the often very artificial posturings of Amadis and his noble cohort. Yet there are moments of delicate beauty where the vocal decorations intensify the emotional turmoil of the character singing; the celebrated arietta “Bois épais” is a classic example.

Lully’s music tends to be restricted to two main gears: passages of noble grandeur in march time and bucolic skipping in dotted rhythms with a lot of percussive instrumentation. Both modes can be highly attractive, and one fairly straightforward and jaunty tune follows another. There is also some plaintive, yearning music hymning the power of love but the lack of variety can pall and there is a lot of accompanied recitative. However, the thing that above all compromises this enterprise for me is the tremulous, constricted tenor of Cyril Auvity as the hero Amadis. He sounds more like a parody of bad French singing rather than the type required, in the tradition of Gallic lyric tenors such as Edmond Clément, David Devriès, Charles Friant or Georges Thill. In truth, I derive no real pleasure from his singing; others may find differently. The tenor singing the second demon disguised as a shepherd – don’t ask - is also rather piping and feeble.

One singer who really does make me sit up, however, is the rising young French baritone - of Irish extraction, hence his name – Edwin Crossley-Mercer, as Arcalaüs. This is a singer to watch – or rather, hear. He has a beautifully smooth, rich voice and his crystalline diction immediately enlivens any text he sings. I note that in a radio broadcast of this opera back in 1974 the great French baritone Robert Massard sang the other baritone role of Florestan. Crossley-Mercer’s handsome baritone reminds me of Massard’s voice and he is thus carrying forward the admirable precedent of big-voiced singers scaling down their sound to accommodate the more intimate demands of French Baroque opera.

The female voices here are uniformly attractive and the language poses no problems, the cast being nearly all native French-speakers with the exception of Dutch soprano Caroline Weynants who is slight less at ease with the text. The large, vibrant voice of Ingrid Perruche as Arcabonne is a particularly good match for Crossley-Mercer’s baritone in their scene together as brother and sister that opens Act II. In general the idiom is convincingly recreated without sounding precious, successfully conjuring up the atmosphere of the court of Le Roi Soleil. The small orchestra is made up of period specialists skilfully playing authentic instruments in what we must assume is the correct style, insofar as we can know these things. Lully’s use of kettledrums and trumpets is especially typical of his feisty style. Within the overlong fabric of the opera there are some established highlights which have survived as concert recital pieces, such as the aforementioned “Bois épais”, the equally brief but highly dramatic aria “Tu me trahis”, very reminiscent of Purcell, and the stately extended Chaconne which concludes the work.

The booklet is lavish and attractive with a full French libretto and English translation.

There have been to my knowledge only two previous recordings of “Amadis”, so it is all the more to be regretted that the eponymous character in this otherwise well cast and enthusiastically played live recording is not more gratefully sung.
 
Ralph Moore

Cast & performance details

Amadis – Cyril Auvity (tenor)
Oriane – Judith van Wanroij (soprano)
Arcabonne – Ingrid Perruche (soprano)
Arcalaüs – Edwin Crossley-Mercer (baritone)
Florestan – Benoît Arnould (baritone)
Urgande – Bénédicte Tauran (soprano)
Corisande – Hasnaa Bennani (soprano)
Alquif, l’ombre d’Ardan Canile, un geôlier, un berger – Pierrick Boisseau (baritone)
Un captif, un berger, un héros –Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor)
Une suivante d’Urgande, une heroine, une captive, une bergère – Caroline Weynants (soprano)
Une bergère, une suivante d’Urgande – Virginie Thomas (soprano)
Chœur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset