Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1688)
Judith van Wanroij (Alceste. La Gloire)
Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Alcide)
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Admete. 2nd Triton)
Ambroisine Bré (Cephise. Nymphe des Tuileries, Proserpine)
Douglas Williams (Lycomede. Charon)
Etienne Bazola (Nymph de la Marne. Thetis. Diane)
Bénédicte Tauran (Nymph de la Marne. Thetis. Diane)
Lucía Martín-Cartón (Nymph de la Seine. Une Nymphe. Femme affligee. Une Ombre)
Enguerrand de Hys (Lychas. Pheres. Alecton. Apollon. 1st Triton. Suivant de Pluton)
Chœur de chambre Namur, Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. Salle Gaveau, Paris, 2017
Libretto included in French and English
APARTE MUSIC AP164 [80:00 + 70:59]
Lully’s Alceste is generally regarded as one of his finest operas, if not the finest, although I personally prefer Armide. It has not fared well on disc and, whilst I have a number of his operas on CD and DVD, ten in all, Alceste up to now has eluded me. That being said, I do know the work through a borrowed copy of the very fine recording on Astree Auvidis (E 8527) conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire. It is a very long time since I heard this long deleted recording, but I do remember how impressed I was by both the work and performance.
Alceste received its premier on 19 January 1674 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal by the Académie Royale de Musique, which later became the Opéra de Paris. It was intended ass a celebration of the victory of Louis XIV over Franche-Comté, a part of eastern France which was under the control of Spain and finally became part of France with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle. The French language libretto was by the finest librettist of the day, Philippe Quinault (1635-1688) and was based upon Euripides’s drama Alcestis. It draws on many aspects of human emotion, all of them being wonderfully treated by Lully. The ultimate hero of the opera, Alcide, or Hercules, is a thinly disguised allusion to Louis XIV.
Listening to this opera for the first time in a number of years, I soon became struck on how important this work is, not just in the oeuvre of Lully – this was only his second tragédie en Musique after Cadmus et Hermione – but also in the development of French opera. This is a work that delivers both pathos and humour in the strong portrayal of the leading characters, with Lully’s music expertly highlighting these aspects of the libretto and bringing them to life. There is plenty to enjoy in Lully’s writing, and while he is best remembered as a composer for voices, and his writing for soloists and chorus here is wonderful, there is some stylish orchestral writing as well. The dance numbers were later made into a suite.
The performance is wonderful, with Christophe Rousset getting to the real heart of Lully’s music and drawing the very best out of the singers and instrumentalists alike. I have a number of Rousset’s Lully recordings, all of which point to him being the leading interpreter of Lully, and this new recording only serves to strengthen this opinion. His choice of tempo and careful editing of the score produce a finished product which, after reacquainting myself with the earlier Jean-Claude Malgoire recording online, is a clear winner and totally eclipses the earlier recording.
Rousset’s recording boasts the better roster of soloists almost right across the board. Only the young sweet voice of Véronique Gens is preferable from the earlier production. Judith van Wanroij is wonderful in the title role with a performance that is both intense and fragile, whilst Edwin Crossley-Mercer has a muscular bass tone that is ideal for the portrayal of the hero, Alcide, and therefore the king himself. Indeed, all the soloists are well cast and add strength in depth to this production, with the Chœur de Chambre Namur also deserves a special mention – their performance is wonderful and adds a lot to the recording. Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset’s own band which he formed back in 1991, give a lot to this recording, with a performance that is wonderfully crisp and light, though dark when required. They bring out the best of the dance movements and support the vocal lines extremely well. All the performers bring this opera to life in a performance that will be hard to beat.
The production is also excellent, with pleasing recorded sound that is an improvement on the earlier recording. It is brighter, which brings out aspects of the music that I missed in the previous performance. The presentation of this two CD set is in the form of a CD-case-sized hardback book and provides a detailed introduction to the opera as well as a synopsis and full text in both French and English. There are no performer biographies, but this is a small price to pay for such a wonderful performance. This set is a limited edition. My copy is number 2050, so my advice is to get out and
buy it while you still can.