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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Isis, opera (tragédie en musique) in a prologue and five acts (premièred 1677)
Thaile, Isis, Io – Ève-Maud Hubeaux (mezzo-soprano)
La Renommée Melpomène, Mycène, Junon – Bénédicte Tauran (soprano)
Calliope, Iris, Syrinx, Hébé – Ambroisine Bré (mezzo-soprano)
Apollon, Pirante, la Furie – Cyril Auvity (tenor)
Jupiter, Pan – Edwin Crossley-Mercer (bass-baritone)
Neptune, Argus – Philippe Estèphe (baritone)
Mercure – Fabien Hyon (tenor)
Hiérax – Aimery Lefèvre (baritone)
Deux nymphes – Julie Calbete, Julie Vercautere
The Chœur de chambre de Namur (chorus masters: Leonardo García Alarcón & Thibaut Lenaerts)
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 2019, Salle Gaveau, Paris
French texts including libretto with English translations
APARTÉ AP216 [77.00 + 79.00]

On the Aparté label, Les Talens Lyriques directed by Christophe Rousset continues its impressive cycle of Lully operas with Isis, a tragédie en musique in a prologue and five acts.

A Tuscan by birth, Jean-Baptiste Lully had an unparalleled rise to fame from kitchen servant at the royal court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), to become the Sun King’s favourite and earn the patronage needed to achieve the success his talent deserved. Louis founded Académie d’Opéra in 1669, soon to be renamed as the Académie Royale de Musique with Lully as its director. It wasn’t long before the company became widely known as simply the Opéra.

Isis is an early opera, Lully’s fifth such work written in collaboration with Parisian librettist Philippe Quinault. It was premièred in 1677 at the royal court at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye performed by artists of Lully’s own Académie Royale de Musique and La Musique du Roi. All the costs of the lavish production were covered by the royal treasury. Later that year, the Opéra gave Isis a run of performances before the Parisian public at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, using the same staging.

With the king’s approval, Quinault based his libretto to Isis on the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (first book) but it aroused strong disapproval, notably from the king’s mistress Madame de Montespan, and the librettist was banished from court for a couple of years. In the notes, Pascal Denécheau explains that the opera was, ‘without any real dramatic action’ and ‘the court would identify the jealous and irascible goddess Juno with Madame de Montespan, and the character of Io with the young Marie-Elisabeth de Ludres, one of the king’s royal mistress’s filles d’honneur.’ Basically, the plot of Isis concerns the adulterous god Jupiter who, to the annoyance of his spouse Juno, pursues the nymph Io. In the concluding scene, Io is freed from her ordeals and transformed into the goddess Isis.

The performance is hard to fault and the cast of native French singers extremely well-chosen. Swiss mezzo-soprano Ève-Maud Hubeaux excels in her roles of Thaile, Io and Isis. Standing out is Hubeaux’s expressive rendition of ‘Terminez mes tourments, puissant maître du monde’ (Act Five, Scene One) displaying her rich attractive tone and sung with considerable concentration as the nymph Io emerges from the sea and implores Jupiter to end her torment. The roles of Apollon, Pirante and la Furie are taken by Cyril Auvity. In the duet ‘C’est trop entretenir ces tristes rêveries’ (act one, scene two) where Pirante requests Hiérax to stop his sad contemplations and relish the joys of countryside instead, his focused, moderately bright tenor achieves the lovely high notes comfortably. In the same duet, French baritone Aimery Lefèvre as Hiérax sings most effectively, exhibiting an excellent feeling for the words.

Soprano Bénédicte Tauran is cast as La Renommée, Melpomène, Mycène and Junon. A highlight is the duo ‘Ce prince trop longtemps dans ses chagrins s’obstine’ (Act One, Scene Four) where Mycène is in intimate discussion with fellow nymph Io. Here, Tauran demonstrates a radiant voice, smooth and able to float easily into her top register. Bass-baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer shines in the parts of Jupiter and Pan. Especially enjoyable is Pan’s lament ‘Hélas! Quel bruit! qu’entends-je?’ (Act Three, Scene Six) expressing his torment as the nymph Syrinx rejects him and is turned into a river-reed. In smooth and focused voice, he communicates expressively. In the roles of Calliope, Iris, Syrinx and Hébé, mezzo-soprano Ambroisine Bré is in fine form and baritone Philippe Estèphe performs with real credit, too, as Neptune and Argus.

Twenty strong, the Chœur de chambre de Namur excel, singing with consummate expertise. Especially enjoyable is the challenging ‘Choeur des Échos’ Act One, Scene Five) and the ‘Choeur de sylvains, satyres et de bergers’ (Act Three, Act Six). Les Talens Lyriques on period instruments demonstrates its mastery of the French baroque repertoire, playing with artistry, precision and plenty of rhythmic vivacity in the solo passages, qualities which are heard to significant effect in the Ouverture and the short ‘Marche des bergers et satyres’ (Act Three, Scene Six). Satisfyingly recorded by Little Tribeca at Salle Gaveau, Paris, the results are really first rate, having impressive clarity and balance. The booklet provides a synopsis, Pascal Denécheau’s informative essay ‘Isis, I'opéra des musiciens’ and the French libretto, all in English translations. However, the pages Les personnages - Dramatis Personæ from Ballard’s published score (Paris, 1719) have not been translated into English.

Isis may not be considered to be Lully’s greatest achievement, but there is plenty to relish and the performance could hardly be bettered.

Michael Cookson

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