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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]

I first came upon Lully’s Isis through the excerpts recorded by Les Arts Florissants and William Christie on their Erato disc entitled Les divertissements de Versailles (092744655-2). I remember being totally blown away by the music from Isis, especially the scene in the frozen lands, the technique that Purcell used as a model for King Arthur, but which Lully does much better. This led me to track down a copy of the full opera, conducted by Hugo Reyne on Accord. Sadly, the release was by then only available in a 10 CD box set Les Premiers Opéras Français (480 2871). I say sadly because, whilst the set also contains three other Lully operas, all in wonderful performances, the booklet contains no notes whatsoever, just the French texts of the works. I was, therefore, happy to hear of this recording and hoped that it would have the excellent production values of the earlier Rousset recordings of Lully’s opera, I was not disappointed.

Once we get through the Prologue, which offers the usual celebration of the French King, Louis XIV, and the recent naval victory over the Dutch and Spanish during the Franco-Dutch War, the story of Isis, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is quite simple if a bit convoluted. Io is betrothed to Hiérax, who is thinking of breaking of the engagement because he thinks Io loves another. The other in this case is the God Jupiter, who has become besotted by Io’s beauty, with Mercury coming to tell her that Jupiter will soon descend to shower her with blessings. Jupiter then descends to Earth, shrouding it in cloud in order to hide his activities from his wife Juno. Juno is wise to this deception and sends Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, and the female equivalent of Mercury, to keep an eye on Jupiter until she herself arrives on Earth. Jupiter orders Mercury to detain Iris, which he does by pretending to woo her. However, Iris does not fall for Mercury’s charms and so searches, in vain, for Io. Juno does not believe that Jupiter is not attracted to Io, and she descends on her cloud to confront him and Io. She announces to Jupiter that she has chosen a new nymph to be part of her retinue. He agrees to this, but is more reluctant when he realises that the chosen nymph is none other than Io, so he grudgingly agrees. At this point Mercury and Iris enter accompanying Io.

Act III begins with Juno giving Io, whom she suspects has seduced her husband, into the care of Argus, the ideal gaoler since he can sleep with some of his hundred eyes open. Argus tells Juno that Io can inspire too much love, and Juno orders her to lock her away. As he is locking her up, Hiérax appears demanding to follow Io, but Argus states Juno’s condition that no one can see her. At this point Syrinx and some nymphs enter singing and dancing in praise of freedom, while Mercury, now disguised as a shepherd, puts his plan to free Io into action. He tells Argus that Pan has devised an entertainment, an opera within an opera, for Syrinx. Whilst this takes place Argus begins to become sleepy, and Mercury approaches him and puts him fully to sleep with a touch of his wand. As he releases Io, Hiérax appears and tries to stop Mercury and wakes up Argus. Mercury kills Argus with his wand, whilst he turns Hiérax into a bird of prey, which flies away. At this point Juno arrives and revives Argus. He becomes a peacock, with his hundred eyes seen in the feathers. Juno then, in her wrath, summons a fury and demands that she punishes Io with many and diverse torments. The fury then caries Io away, dragging her around the world from realm to realm whilst Juno returns to the heavens. This is followed with the Act that demanded, not only a new way of singing, but also of dancing, as Io was dragged from realm to realm by the fury. Beginning with the frozen land and the famous shivering scene, this called for a faltering, shivering action in both singing and in the movements of the dance, something totally new and unique at the time. From the frozen realm, the Fury drags Io to the forges of the Chalybes, who heap red hot coals around her. Eventually, Io can take no more, so she climbs to the highest point and throws herself into the sea below. However, the fury dives in after her and drags her to the shore so that it can continue to torment her. Only the Fates can decide who may die, and they order that Io must go before Juno and plead for death so that the torture will be over. Jupiter descends from the heavens and is moved to pity, stating that not even he can overturn Juno’s wishes. He does, however, intercede on Io’s behalf and pleads before Juno for an end to her suffering. Juno wants Jupiter to give up Io before she will release her from her tormentor. This Jupiter does, stating that if Juno relinquishes Io, he will rekindle his love for his wife and that he will not love anyone but her. At this, Juno releases Io from her bonds and sends the fury back to the underworld. She raises Io to the ranks of the immortals, where she receives the name Isis, at which point the people of Egypt recognise Isis as a goddess who has been sent to protect them, with the gods, including Isis, returning to heaven. So, Philippe Quinault’s retelling of the story differs from the original in a few ways, one being that Jupiter does not change Io into a white heifer to disguise her from Juno, whilst here Juno sends a fury to harry her rather than the gadfly of antiquity to bite and sting Io from one place to another, something that mythology stated gave rise to the naming of the water between Europe and Asia as the Bosporus, meaning ox-ford.

Both the versions of this opera by Christophe Rousset and Hugo Reyne have a lot to offer, although neither quite match William Christie’s depiction of the frozen realm and the forges of the Chalybes for sheer excitement. Both these versions offer a committed and compelling performance, with both offering a fine raft of soloists, choral singing and orchestral playing. However, to my ears, at least, Rousset does offer a slightly better cast, and it is this that gives his performance the edge. Ève-Maud Hubeaux is absolutely wonderful as the title character, offering more emotional depth to the performance than Françoise Masset does for Reyne. The same can be said of Bénédicte Tauran, who portrays the ire and guile of Juno to perfection. Of the male singers, the great Cyril Auvity brings a wilfulness and sense of pleasure to the role of the fury as he makes the life of Io a real misery. As Jupiter, Edwin Crossley-Mercer brings a great sense of pity to the role, especially in Act V as he pleads with his wife to spare Io from any more hardship and agony. Even in the smaller parts, Rousset seems to get the most from his singers; whilst Aimery Lefèvre moves from the pain of mistrust of Io, to one of pity and understanding as her betrothed, Hiérax, Fabien Hyon is excellent as the wilful Mercury.

The Choeur de chambre de Namur are slightly more colourful than the Le Chœur du Marais for Reyne, with much the same being said about the orchestra. Les Talens Lyriques are more colourful and play with a little extra character than La Symphonie du Marais do for Hugo Reyne. Reyne offers a very good performance, but Les Talens Lyriques and Rousset offer just that extra little sparkle, especially in the dance episodes of the opera, which makes this new recording stand out. Add to this the wonderful ad more detailed recorded sound, as well as the presentation. Here we get a CD sized hardback book with expert articles and full texts and translations in French and English, making this release a clear winner. I would not be without the Hugo Reyne recording of Isis, it still has a lot to offer, but this new presentation by Christophe Rousset and his forces certainly has the edge. It is, for me, a highly recommended recording for anyone seeking to hear this opera or learn more about Lully and his place in the development of French baroque opera, and French music in general.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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