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 Château de Versailles

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Reviewer :
Lindsay Kemp

Another Lully opera already from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques – we had Acis et Galatée only in November. This one, though, the 11th in Rousset’s complete cycle, comes not on the Aparté label but on the Château de Versailles imprint as part of its more general series of French Baroque spectacles. It was recorded at concerts in the dryish acoustic of the Opéra Royal de Versailles early last year.


Psyché was Lully’s new tragédie en musique for 1678, and the first not to have been written with his favourite librettist Philippe Quinault, recently banished from the Opéra after poking fun at the king’s mistress Madame de Montespan in their previous opera, Isis. The incoming writer was Thomas Corneille, son of the great playwright Pierre, but he perhaps did not have time to write a whole libretto, since the opera is a rewrite of Lully’s ballet of the same name produced in Paris in 1671, which had a spoken text by Quinault, Pierre Corneille and Molière. Corneille fils did a pretty good job of adapting it for singing, keeping some of the set pieces and cutting down the lines of the play by three quarters, but even so the result, while having the classic prologue-and-five-acts shape of a tragédie lyrique, emerges lopsided in places: Psyche’s sisters Aglaura and Cidippe converse at length in Act 1 but never reappear; Act 3 is entirely dialogue; and the whole text still feels really quite wordy.


The story tells how Cupid (Amour) falls for the beautiful mortal princess Psyche, thereby bringing down on her the wrath of his jealous mother Venus, who does everything she can to stop the pair from being together. There is a wonderfully tender love scene between them in Act 2 set to some of Lully’s most beautiful music; colour is provided by the hammer and anvils of Vulcan’s forge in Act 2; there is a delightful Italian aria (words possibly by Lully) and an underworld scene in Act 4 (Psyche having been sent there by Venus on a wild goose chase); and in the final act a jovial divertissement appears after the situation has been resolved, in which a host of deities defer to the allencompassing power of love.


The oddities of the piece’s birth mean that meaty roles for Rousset’s current regular Lully singers are few. Ambroisine Bré shines, however, as Psyché, her voice clear and agile yet with just enough weight in it to give dramatic substance to her bemused but determined character. Her love duet with Deborah Cachet’s Amour is exquisitely done, and Cachet also impresses along with Eugénie Lefebvre as the two sisters. Bénédicte Tauran is convincing as a sorry-for-herself Vénus, and all three tenors are slick and svelte in their various roles.


Nor are there weaknesses among the other minor roles, something that is not quite true of the rival recording from Boston Early Music Festival forces directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who are also less comfortable with French words (Carolyn Sampson’s lovely Psyché being a notable exception). In general, however, I found the newer version surprisingly sleepy, possibly a combined result of the faults of the piece itself, the conducting and even the editing (surely the gaps between numbers in the final divertissement are too long?). As usual Rousset moulds a softly accented sound that feels authentically French but the brighter, more boldly projected and sharply pointed Boston performance (recorded after a full staging) ultimately has greater richness, momentum and generous sense of occasion.

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