Lully’s Phaëton – Les Talens Lyriques/Philippe Rousset with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro at Barbican Hall

Phaëton – tragédie en musique in a Prologue and five Acts to a libretto by Philippe Quinault after a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses [sung in French]

Phaëton – Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Clymène – Ingrid Perruche
Théone / Astrée – Isabelle Druet
Libye – Sophie Bevan
Epaphus – Andrew Foster-Williams
Mérops / Automne / Jupiter – Matthew Brook
Protée / Saturne – Benoît ArnouldTriton / Le Soleil / La Déesse de la Terre – Cyril Auvity
Une Heure / Une Bergère égyptienne – Virginie Thomas

Namur Chamber Choir

Les Talens Lyriques
Philippe Rousset

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 8 March, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Photograph: gonzaleztoro.comThe Barbican Centre has for several years been the place to hear baroque operas of importance which have been disinterred by specialist groups who have a missionary interest in bringing them back to life. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) is a fascinating figure, not least because of his bi-nationality. He was born in Italy, emigrated to France, worked his way up the musical hierarchy in the reign of Louis XIV and almost single-handedly determined the course which French opera was to take in the century which followed his bizarre death. Of few composers can it be said that he was in complete control of his nation’s musical policy; but Lully was a master of politics, pursuing his ambition without scruple. He exploited the royal patronage of the king, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for dancing, to acquire, by opportunistic means, a monopoly of operatic activity in France. He set up his own company, the Académie Royale de Musique, and banned all productions other than with his permission.

Thereafter he set about developing a distinctive form of opera for his adopted nation, the tragédie lyrique or tragédie en musique, of which he left fourteen examples, Phaëton being the tenth. The blueprint he created involved a central narrative based on a mythological subject in five Acts and a Prologue. The architecture of the tragédie lyrique included roles for the orchestra and the chorus. The end-product was a combination of French instrumental style based on the conventions of dance music with Italian vocal methods. Music co-existed with divertissement, which included dance episodes and elaborate spectacle. Each tragédie lyrique in its full form is a complete package. Phaëton holds a high position in the ranking of Lully’s oeuvre as primus inter pares, certainly in terms of popularity: it quickly acquired the sobriquet “l’opéra du peuple”.

Put briefly, the plot of the opera is based on a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Set in mythological ancient Egypt, the characters are a mixture of the Egyptian royal family and gods. Phaëton, son of the Sun, seduced by the lure of absolute power and the desire to prove his legitimacy by driving the chariot which conveys the sun across the heavens, is punished for his hubris by being shot out of the sky. The abdication of the king of Egypt and his nomination of Phaëton as both his successor and son-in-law causes a domino effect among the relationships of other characters.

These new operas had a political purpose, to promote the glory of France and to pay tribute to the king. Phaëton is typical of so many treatments of operatic subjects of its period and its successors, right through to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito more than a century later, with Lully depicting rulers idealistically and their rivals severely. Courtiers and subjects will doubtless have been conscious of the allegorical element in Phaëton: the grisly fate which befalls Phaëton is a warning of the summary punishment due to someone who dares to challenge the monarch. In this case there is an even more explicit parallel, given Louis’s sobriquet of “Sun King”, as Phaëton’s act of attempted lèsemajesté is to replace the sun.

Having worked with Molière on his comédie-ballets it may seem surprising that Lully should turn to another librettist, Philippe Quinault, to provide his texts for many of his tragédies lyriques. In the event, however, Quinault turned out to be a decided strength and the relationship between composer and librettist was mutually productive. The characters are incisively drawn: the power-hungry and hubristic Phaëton and his pushy mother Clymène, and the scorned woman Théone. These are woven into powerful dramatic situations: the Egyptian princess Libye is about to be forced into marriage with Phaëton, leaving his girlfriend Théone abandoned and Libye’s existing relationship with Epaphus, son of Jupiter, in ruins. The ensemble passages are particularly memorable: duets for Théone and Libye, the confrontation between Epaphus and Phaëton, and the former’s affectionate duet with Libye in Act Five when all seems lost.

The lines which Quinault gives to the characters are mostly in alternate rhymes or couplets, nothing like as formalised as the alexandrines used by contemporary dramatists Corneille, Racine and Molière. Lully takes advantage of the greater freedom that this provides and is economical; there is nothing really extended in the setting of the text but what there is certainly packs a punch. The relationship of verbal exchanges with the instruments is extremely resourceful. The continuo quartet is used flexibly, sometimes supported from the main string body. For the vocal soloists basic lines of recitative alternate with arioso passages but the most impressive and touching moments come when the vocal line flowers into brief lines of extended melody. Characters almost literally burst into song. Thus an Italian element survives in the musical structure which is Lully’s newly-invented French-opera blueprint. Even Rameau was reluctant to disturb it.

Philippe Rousset is at the centre of the Lully revival, working tirelessly on the composer’s behalf, and a recording of Phaëton is due. Rousset sees his role in relation to Lully as an evangelical one and he trenchantly declares Lully to be greatly superior to Rameau theatrically. His role extends to reconstructing the musical texts. The lack of some instrumentation has made it necessary for him to make his own choice of colours. His use of flutes, recorders and oboes at various points I found universally convincing. Just as Lully trained the orchestra which he had founded, so has Rousset created a group of musicians who seem to know instinctively how he wants the music to be played. The long circling chaconne which concludes the second Act was the players’ great moment.

The chorus is an adaptable body in the drama, influenced by Greek theatre, sometimes commenting on the action, sometimes being an active participant, as in the last Act when, fearing an environmental disaster, they appeal to Jupiter to save the world by launching a thunderbolt. The Namur Chamber Choir is a high-class ensemble, each section clearly differentiated and strongly characterful, the members producing a disciplined, unified sound in tutti passages. Unusually, there is no music for the chorus in Act One, confirmation that each of these fourteen works is an experiment.

The score boasts two hautes-contres, that especially French voice-type whose high centre of gravity needs no artificial aid from falsetto. In the title role Emiliano Gonzalez Toro had a conspicuous vibrancy to his tone. A rather inert stance, the feet planted ponderously and an absence of animation did not always sit well with his supposed ruthless pursuit of power. The other tenor of this type, Cyril Auvity, had the more liquid tone, which occasionally turned scratchy at the top; he had quite a lot to sing as Triton; by contrast he was animated, nervy almost. Sophie Bevan deployed her beautiful lyric soprano in the predominantly passive role of Libye, daughter of the Egyptian king, chosen by her abdicating father to share the throne with Phaëton. As her beloved Epaphus Andrew Foster-Williams challenged the latter’s divine origins in utterances of stentorian power but could scale down his dark bass for the tender duet in the final Act when everything seemed lost. Matthew Brooks was another solid bass in the role of Mérops; was it a coincidence that with his lounge suit and glasses he looked like a bureaucrat? Benoît Arnould was rather too light of voice as Protée, though nimble enough.

It was clear from her lines as Astrée in the Prologue that Isabelle Druet has a powerful, piercing voice and she dominated every scene in which she appeared as Théone, the estranged girlfriend of Phaëton. The sufferings of that character were never downplayed. If anything Druet overdid the hand-wringing. She dominated her scenes with Phaëton but her tendency to wail and the use of slightly flattened pitch before long became predictable as a means of characterisation. Clymène is the most ambiguous character and thus the most interesting. In Ingrid Perruche’s finely sung interpretation soft maternal affection co-existed with solid support and encouragement for her son’s ambition.

I suppose we can never hope to see the elaborate spectacle prescribed in the stage directions. A concert performance may lack movement, colour and spectacle but the musical performance supplied the equivalent sound experience in full measure. One surprise was the abrupt conclusion to the opera: perhaps further music alongside the crash of the solar chariot in the original staging would have seemed superfluous.

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