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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Persée 1770 (Collection "Château de Versailles")
Mathias Vidal - Persée
Hélène Guilmette - Andromède
Katherine Watson - Mérope
Tassis Christoyannis - Phinée
Jean Teitgen - Céphée, une Divinité Infernale
Chantal Santon-Jeffery - Un Éthiopien, Une Nymphe Guerrière, Vénus
Marie Lenormand - Cassiope
Cyrille Dubois - Un Éthiopien, Mercure
Marie Kalinine - Méduse
Thomas Dolié - Un Éthiopien, Un Cyclope, Sténone, Un Triton
Zachary Wilder - Euryale
Chorus and Orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
rec. Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles, France, 15 & 16 April, 2016
ALPHA 967 [54:05 + 53:39]

I have seven or eight operatic works by Jean-Baptiste. Ever since I first heard Christophe Rousset’s wonderful recording of Persée on Astrée Naïve (E 8874), it has always been one of my favourites, so I was intrigued by a version of this masterpiece conceived some eighty three years after the composer’s death. I enjoyed the performance of this later version, but I feel that the tinkering with this work has actually detracted from the original rather than enhanced it.

The original vision of this work, as it was first performed in 1682, was based upon the Metamorphoses of Ovid. By all accounts, the performance greatly amused the King, Louis XIV. The depiction of Medusa and her two sisters especially reminded him of the triple alliance of the United Provinces of Holland, Sweden and the Holy Roman Emperor who had conspired against him. Louis XIV having moved into Versailles that year, but there was as yet no theatre large enough at the palace for opera or ballet productions. Persée was therefore shown at the Académie Royale de Musique. This was an incredibly successful production, one which earned many repeat performances and a special place in the hearts of those who saw it. It was this popularity that led to its revival in 1770 for the occasion of the marriage of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of Austria. This would also be the first production in the newly completed opera house in the Palace of Versailles.

For that production, the original libretto by Quinault was to receive some savage cuts at the hand of Nicolas-Renè Joliveau, most notably the complete loss of the opening prologue. In most French baroque operas prologues play no real part in the story, but here in essence it acted as a sort of opera within an opera. I do miss it, as it did add to the work as a whole. This is not the only occasion where the text is cut, but thankfully not as drastically. The story can still be followed, despite the sections inserted to reference the nuptials of the royal couple.

The tinkering does not only apply to the words. Lully’s wonderful music was also affected. For this production, Antoine Dauvergne (1713-1797), Bernard de Bury (1720-1785) and François Rebel (1701-1775) were employed not only to re-orchestrate Lully’s original, adding instruments which were now popular or which were not originally available, but on occasion to replace the original music all together. This for me is a real shame. It gives the work a totally different status, if you like a baroque opera with pretentions of being a classical opera whilst not really fitting in either stable.

Despite my misgivings about the reworking of the opera as a whole, I really enjoyed the performance. I thought that the singing was excellent throughout, although I do prefer Paul Agnew in the title role in Rousset’s recording. On the other hand, Katherine Watson here gives a performance that wrings out every ounce of jealousy in the role of Mérope—better than Salomé Haller for Rousset. Both the chorus and orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel are on excellent form under Hervé Niquet’s excellent and spirited direction.

The recorded sound is vibrant and suits the music well. The two CDs are presented in the form of a hardback book, one in a pocket inside each cover. The book itself is lavishly illustrated with original set designs, facsimile pages of the score and photographs of the theatre. The text is in French, English and German, and a synopsis and full libretto in French and English only is included—here the presentation is a clear winner.

If I had to choose, I would take the recording of Christophe Rousset’s performance, purely because it offers the listener the opera as the composer envisaged it. However, if it is a hybrid performance that you want, well, you cannot go wrong with this recording. It is a clear, bright and exhilarating performance, just one which is an adaptation of the original in order to fit different circumstances. Both these recordings deserve a place on the shelf of any self-respecting musical Francophile and especially a lover of French baroque.

Stuart Sillitoe


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