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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)
Étienne 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]

My colleague Stuart Sillitoe reviewed this release back last summer, and I don’t have much to do other than add to my praise because it’s worth the hype.

The greatest glory of the set, whence all its other virtues flow, is that most ineffable but most important quality: flavour. There can be few people alive today who understand the French Baroque as well as Christophe Rousset. His earlier recordings, particularly his Lully and Rameau operas, show that he has an insight into the epoch that’s second to none; and that untouchable, indefinable quality shines through in every instance. It’s most obvious in the orchestral sound, for which huge credit must, obviously, go to his own band, Les Talens Lyriques. The sound is delectably smooth and gorgeously subtle, with just the right balance of strings and continuo, sprinkled with some beautiful winds; and when they're called for, the brass and timps add a glorious touch of martial swagger to the music. The dances and divertissements, when the singers stand back, are a particularly joy, shining the spotlight on the instrumentalists alone, and highlighting what a crack team of experts you’re hearing. The chorus ooze exactly the same levels of élan, full of grace, grandeur, poise and elegance. You’re not likely to see Alceste in an opera house any time soon, but if this is the closest you’re going to get then you should count yourself lucky.

Flowing from that sense of the period and style, Rousset’s direction of the singers is superb, and they rise to his demands extremely impressively. They’re lyrical and entrancingly mellifluous, but also as dramatic as the genre requires.

Judith van Wanroij sings Alceste with the right balance of drama and lyricism, fleshing out the character very successfully. Edwin Crossley-Mercer makes a bluffly lyrical Alcide (Hercules), with excellent diction. That’s also true of Douglas Williams, but he has an added air of gravitas as befits his royal character. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro balances both very well.

The smaller roles are all beautifully done, too. Ambroisine Bré has a gorgeously full voice, and there is bracing cleanliness to the soprano of Bénédicte Tauran. Étienne Bazola’s bass is a little anonymous, but the wonderfully named Enguerrand de Hys has a delightfully nasal tenor which is utterly distinctive.

The packaging is in a nicely produced hardback book with a few colour photos. If I was looking for something to complain about then I’d pick out the spelling errors in the English translation of the contextual essay and the fact that the first and last tracks of the set are rather absurdly long and could have been banded better.

However, that sounds churlish when I've praised just about everything else. As I say above, this is as probably as close to Alceste as you’re going to get, but you have no reason to feel short-changed. Dive in and enjoy it.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)

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