Jean Baptiste Lully's Persée
At a time when it is the fashion for stage direction, sets, and costumes to have little, if anything to do with the ouvre presented on stage, this production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Persée (1682) is candy for the eyes and ears, with adherence to what is known of the French Baroque operatic standards.1 From the opening scene, Louis XIV would have felt quite at home in Versailles or the Académie Royal de Musique,2 viewing a performance of Lully's Tragédies Lyriques.3
It was, then, the custom to emulate the grandeur and “virtuosity” of the king in the form of mythological and classical heroes. All court entertainment, specifically opera and to a greater extent ballet, was allegoric, where good won over evil and credit was always given to Louis XIV,4 the Sun King, for his wisdom, generosity, forgiveness and every other kingly quality, except for the bad ones: those were ignored or at best, only observed behind closed doors. The Sun King and royalty, in general, were always portrayed from their best possible angle—art re-inventing life, or was it the other way around?5
Though not without precedent, purists may regret this production eliminating the Prologue: Lully used it to set up the story,6and to further glorify the king's virtues and his victories in the war against the Swedish/Dutch alliance.7 But never fear, in Lully's operas, the libretto is tightly written so that each act is a “play” unto itself with its own theme, yet carrying the dramatic line from the previous act onto the next—links in a closed chain with the entr'acte as an indicator of time or place.8 To facilitate the continuity, the scenes withing each act are marked by the entrance and exit of characters, the former usually accompanied by a brief musical introduction.9
This DVD opens with the exchange between the Ethiopian king, Céphée (Olivier Laquerre), his wife Cassiope (Stephanie Novacek), and her sister, Mérope (Monica Whicher), who is in lover with Persée—but Persée lovers Céphé's and Cassiope's daughter, Andromède. This love triangle sets up the plot of the opera: Céphé has promised his daughter's hand to his brother, Phinée.
Canadian Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre is a versatile singing-actor, equally convincing as the dignified King of Ethiopia or as the whimpering Medusa;10 Laquerre takes control of the stage with his presence: he is very tall, 6-foot-5 and gifted with good looks, wit, plenty of charisma, and a deep voice of pleasant timbre. From his opening line, “Je crains que Junon ne refuse,”11 Céphée is torn between his duties as king, his duties to the gods, and the unscrupulous five and take of politics; he is forced to denounce his wife, “Les dieux punissent la fierté.”12 in exchange of Juno's forgiveness, and to seek Persée's help to defeat Medusa, at the cost of breaking the promise made to his brother, Phinée. Céphée's good will and helplessness are clearly evident in spite of his elegant carriage, and Laquerre plays on this through effective moves and color in the voice.
Laquerre burst into the world of opera in 1999 when he won the Joseph Ruleau Prize at the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada Voice Competition.13 In 2005, Laquerre sang the role of Theodorus Ivanowitz in the world premiere of Johann Mattheson's Boris Goudenow; the following year, the young Canadian singer debuted in Quebec as Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen. The year 2007 brought the release of the film The Magic Flute Diaries in which Laquerre sings the role of Papageno.
In sharp contrast to Laquerre's elegant king, his Medusa stands above the croud in terms of interpretation and wit. This is no overly dramatic raving lunatic; instead, Laquerre's Medusa is amusing and amused about “her” misfortune. In “J'ay perdu la beauté,”14 Laquerre makes eye contact with members of the audience and hisses at them in imitation of the words he sings; he prances and parades around the stage, laughs wickedly, and runs the gamut of facial expressions and grandiose body language. This Medusa is Phyllis Diller-meets-Gypsy Role Lee singing “Let me entertain you,” and Laquerre carries it off!
Olivier Laquerre, as Medusa, sings "J'ai perdu la beauté."
One glance at Stephanie Novacek's good looks and sensuous carriage and the viewer easily understands Juno's anger toward the character of Cassiope. This is no wall flower or contrite queen as “Hereuse espouse, hereuse mère,” and “Par un cruel chastiment,”15 would indicate. Cassiope is a woman obsessed with her vanity, her ego, and her quest for a “glorious destiny,” regardless of the cost.
A former member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Iowa native, Novacek gained international attention with her performance of Jo, in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women at the Houston Grand Opera. Novacek also created the role of Maria Callas in Michael Daughtery's Jackie O, also at the Houston Grand Opera, and for the Cincinnati Opera, she created the role of Madame, in the US premiere of The Maids, by Peter Bengston. A versatile singer, she has appeared in many North American and European operatic centers, covering the entire spectrum of musical styles from Monteverdi to the present.
Throughout this DVD, Novacek is a superb actress, and she knows how to show off her fine instrument without sacrificing the musical line. Her bronzed mezzo-soprano is ideal for the haughty queen; she approaches the recitatives head on, and without apology. In the prayer, “O Junon! Puissante déesse,”16 Novacek is moving in her pleas to the goddess for compassion. Her singing is exciting and versatile' to paraphrase a line from the Wizard of Oz, “[Stephanie] you not in [Iowa] any more.”
Laquerre and Novacek pull all the stops in Act IV, Scenes 4-6. “Ah! Quel effroyable supplice”17 leads to one of the opera's special moments for these two characters: faced with the impending loss of their daughter, the Ethiopian King and Queen express their dispair. Céphée's “Je perds ma fille, helas!”18 is hearfelt and Cassiope's “C'est ma funeste vanité,”19 is passionate and compelling.
In Persée, Quinault and Lully created four distinct characters24 whose opening scenes reflect their true identities. Most obvious of these is Mérope, the emotional center of the opera. Not royal enough to be queen, her position is subservient to her sister's vain glory and other circumstances of her own making. Yet, everything revolves around her, directly as a result of her actions or indirectly as a mirror to her alter-ego, Phinée. Mérope is pitiful and embittered, yet strong and determined; she is devious, but in the end, she proves to be the only one with honorable intentions—her unrequited love for Persée is ideally strong enough for her to retreat and to accept the hero's rejection.25
“Rich sensuous tone worthy of her regal character” is how Dave Eliakis has described soprano Monica Whicher's instrument, and rightly so: Whicher has a lustrous tone and she imbues her character with enough poignance and sincerity of emotion to make the somewhat bitter and conniving character of the love-torn Mérope, likable.
Aside from a short ensemble prayer in the first scene of the opera, Mérope's entrance recitative in Act I, Scene 2, “Le Fils de Jupiter L'adore...Main vainqueur encore aujourd'huy,”26 gives Wicher ample room to display her ability to handle the character's conflicting range of emotions. As Mérope, Wicher vacillates from anger and bitterness when she sings of Persée, to sorrow or self-pity when she sings of her emotions for him. She imbues the words, “...Je murrois de honte et de rage...,”27 with more longing, as though searching inward, with each repeat of the phrase.
Mérope's lament in Act I, Scene 3, “Ah! Je garderay bienmon cœur,”28 offers a fine marriage of words, music and emotions. The long musical line that supports the yearning in the words ends sharply upon the realization that her rival for Persée's affections, Andromède, is approaching with Phinée. Wicher's mastery is evident: instantly, Mérope's lament turns to conniving strategy, betraying her deceit with the words, “L'espoir de leur hymen flate encore mes vœux, et c'est ma derniere espérance,” and in the subsequent scene, speaking to Androméde and Phinée, “Quels différents sonts capables de rompre de beaux nœuds?”29
Whicher is hypnotic in the opening scene of Act V, “O mort!”30 an emotionally charged hymn from the depths of her despair, rich in its sincerity of expression, and with a wealth of color in the voice. For all of the character's deviousness, Whicher weaves all the emotions into a beautiful thread of resignation to make the character's death-wish believable, though regrettable.
A faculty member at the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, Whicher's instrument has been described as having “...musical elegance combined with an intuitive theatrical sense [that] are the hallmarks of soprano Monica Whicher's performances....”31
Alan Coloumbe superbly sings the role of Phinée, the anti-hero and Mérope's alter ego. Like his female counterpart, Phinée, is a pawn in a game he is destined to lose, but unlike Mérope who is driven by her emotions, Phinée is driven by his ego and pride.
Coloumbe has been praised for his rich bass voice, secure tone and wondrous breath control—all of which he puts to effective use in this performance. Another good singing actor, Coloumbe sings with aplomb and has a magnetic stage presence. He is sadistic in “Croyez-moy, croyez moy,”32 the lively and multifaceted exchange between Phinée and his bethrothed, Andromède (Marie Lenormand), over her supposed infidelity. Coloumbe and Lenormand go one to one; a tour de force of emotions and beautiful singing.
In most of the scenes Coloumbe shares with Wicher, Phinée vocalizes Mèrope's inner wishes and she succumbs to his manipulative words and his desire for vengeance. Mèrope connives in “il est aimé de ce qu'il ayme,”33 on Phinée's behalf, and in Act IV, Scenes 2 & 3, their music as their singing, is brave and dramatic, starting with “Nous ressentons mesmes dolueurs,”34 then, together and individually in recitative and duets, they vent their anger, envy, and their displeasure. As the approaching storm, as called for in the libretto, gives rise to the seas, they sing “...Les cœ amoureux et jaloux, sont cent fois plus troublez que vous,”35 and upon learning of Andromède's impending doom, Phinée's angry words, “Les dieux ont soin de nous vanger; le plaisir que je sens avec peine se cache,”36 could easily have been spoken by Mèrope. In a later scene, Phinée's recitative, “Que ne purra...,”37 is impassioned, seductive, and Colombe imbues his lush instrument with emotion and vocal color worthy of the lyrics and music. This recitative leads to a short duet with Mèrope, “Heureux qui peut gouster...,”38 where the two characters share their anguish and “...our feelings of evil.”
|Jean Baptiste Lully engraving by Jean-Louis Roullet|
Unbeknown to him, Giovanni Battista Luilli (November 28, 1632-March 22, 1687) left his humble origins in his native Florence in 1646 to become Monsieur Jean Baptiste de Lully, and in the process he also became the “Father of French Opera.”
At fourteen years of age he was, for all intents and purposes, purchased from his family and taken to France by Chevalier de Guise for servitude as garçon de chanbre in the household of his niece and cousin to the king, Mlle. De Montpensier. In time, Lully studied keyboard, violin, and ballet, and after being released from Mlle. De Montpensier's household, he found a position at court. There, Lully quickly rose to the post of surintendant de musique et compositeur de la musique de chambre for Louis XIV, and in 1662, the king elevated him to the post of Maître de musique.
At court, Lully worked with Moliere on several “mechanical” projects for the stage39 and comediés-ballets which were highly successful, culminating with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670). For these projects, Lully contributed dances, ballets, vocal music and complete scenes—the experience of which he would later put to use in the development of the Tragediés lyriques, or more accurately, Tragégedies en musique.40
At first, Lully was not enthusiastic about opera as a French art form; at least, not until Pierre Perrin41 obtained a royal patent on June 28, 1669, to establish Académies d'Opéra for the presentation of French prose set to music. The Académie de poesie et de musique42 opened in Paris on March 3, 1671, with a performance of Pomone,43 an opera with a text by Perrin and music by Robert Cambert (1628-1677).44 It is generally acknowledged that this production of Pomone encouraged Lully to pursue opera in French. Upon Perrin's imprisonment the following year,44 and over the objections of other investors (Cambert among them), Lully, with the help of Louis XIV, succeeded in taking over Perrin's interest in the Académie patent. In exchange, Lully paid off Perrin's debts.45
Lully transformed Perrin's Académie de poesie et de musique into his own Académie Royal de Musique, today's Paris Opéra, and through a series of other Royal Patents, he was able to acquire absolute monopoly on opera production.46 Through his “favorite” status with the king, Lully could dictate which singers sang in which theaters and how many musicians could play in an orchestra outside of the Académie.47
Quinqult's libretto for Lully's Persée is loosely based on books IV and V of Ovid's Metamorphoses,48 dealing with the mythical hero's defeat of Medusa and his gallant rescue of Androméde.49 The opera portrays the fidelity and true love between Androméde (Madame de Maintenon (November 27, 1635-April 15, 1719) the king's new mistress and future wife) and Persée (Louis XIV); more importantly, it glorifies the wisdom of the Sun King and his victories over his rivals. “Medusa and her two hideous sisters cold not help but remind [the king] of the threefold alliance conspiring against him in union with the Prince of Orange: The United Provinces of Holland, Sweden and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Monstrous force that terrified Andromeda was threatening him as well, and Spain joined forces with it in May.”50 In the dedication of the work to the king, Lully states the purpose of his composition: “I understand that in describing the favorable gifts which Persée has received from the Gods and the astonishing enterprises which he has achieved so gloriously, I am tracing a portrait of the heroic qualities and the wonderful deeds of Your Majesty.”
Lully and Quinault purposely kept Persée absent in Act I;51 it was for the rest of the characters to laud his virtues and to keep the thought of him as the unifying thread in the opera—as in real life: the court, country, and the world, revolved around the Sun King; his name, never far from anyone's thoughts or lips. Persée's late entrance (Act II, Scene VI) also serves as a backdrop to the struggle between the characters and eliminates the need for the hero to make a less than “virtuous” decision by claiming the hand of the woman he loves—a woman who is already committed to another man.52 It falls on Andromède's father, Céphée, to break the news to his brother Phinée by telling him that Persée's “worth will surprise you. Acknowledge the son of the most powerful of the Gods...” and honor his courage.
The lead roles of Andromède and Persée are well interpreted by Marie Lenormand and Cyril Auvity.
Like most members of the cast in this production, French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand is one of those singers whose successful career is virtually unknown; yet, for over ten years she as been a frequent performer in North America and Europe. In Houston, where she was a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio from 1999 to 2002, she appeared in two American premieres: Lenorman originated the role of Thelma Predmore in Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree (2000) and The Fox, in Rachel Portman's The Little Prince (2003).
Lenormand's engaging stage presence and porcelain-doll-looks make her ideal to play the conflicted role of Andromède; then, there is her lustrous voice. Lenormand possesses an enviable pitch perfect instrument, rich and elegant with a rock solid technique and vivid phrasing.
An excellent singing actress, Lenormand's winsome looks bely the strength in her, and she runs the gamut of emotions with Coloumbe in “Croyez-moy.” In “Infortunez qu'un monstre affreux...Il ne m'ayme que trop...,”53 Act II, Scene V, Lenormand's soul searching singing is at once poignant and painfully beautiful. An extended scene follows with a sensitive duet between Andromède and Mèrope, “Vous l'aymez;”54 where their voices are fluid and seamless in their acknowledgment of their mutual love for Persée. Later, in Act IV, Lenormand is eloquent and compelling as Andromède, facing death, reminisces over what could have been, “Dieux qui me destinez.”55
Marie Lenormand and Monica Wicher sing,
Infortunez qu'un monstre affreux.
Lenormand imbues Andromède's duet with Persée, Act II, Scene 6, with emotional and dramatic impact with her vulnerability at the realization that, in spite of having rejected his advances, she does not love her betrothed, Phinée, but Persée, “Vous m'aymez vainement....Persée, arrestez, arrestez...Ah! Vostre péril....”56
Persée, though central to the action, is the least riveting character, to not say the weakest.57 Of all the major characters in the opera, he appears in only eleven scenes and sings in only six—and he has fewer lines than the relatively minor character of Mercure. However, tenor Cyril Auvity makes the best of the small part; he is well suited for the role with his youthful looks and the innocent timbre of his instrument. In contrast to the Sun King, this Persée is not virile or god-like, but heroic nonetheless. Auvity is dedicated and focused in his duet with Andromède, Act II, Scene 6, “Ah! Vostre péril est estrême!”58 where his singing is flawless.
Of all the foreign and influential composers to settle in France,59 Lully was the first to achieve great fame and prestige, and the one to exert the most influence on “French” music, and on future generations of musicians and public, alike. Other composers may have achieved more fame, a better reputation, or may today be considered better composers, but only Lully achieved the well deserved title of “Father of French Opera.”60
Lully succeeded doing in France what Handel failed to do in England: the establishment of opera as a “national” art form—no small accomplishment when one considers the reverence for the spoken word (followed by ballet) in France. Unlike in Italy, where the voice and song had always had more prominence and acceptance over the spoken word, in France, the veneration of the theater combined with the negative image of Italian operatic pyrotechnics, not suited to the French language, made the acceptance of Italian opera, tenuous at best.
Not being credited with being a musical genius, Lully had an innate sense of drama and an unequalled understanding of musical values and French diction. He re-wrote the book on the use of recitative by replacing Italian recitativo secco with accompanied recitative, better suited to the French language. He made music subservient to the written word and insisted on beautiful, “distinguished and elegant diction which is still one of the glories of French lyric art.”61 For Lully, “[t]echnique and virtuosity were...less important than rhythmic accuracy and finesse in performance.”62 Lully expanded the French penchant for “grace and refinement” versus Italian “passion and emotion,” prevalent at the time, and injected drama and continuity to the recitatives. He blurred the line between recitative and aria; the use of “Italian” style arias with unnecessary high notes and frivolous singing was extremely curtailed, if not eliminated.
With Lully, the chorus and the ballet became an integral part of the drama,63 and in some instances, of each other,64 instead of a convenient prop to mask the change of scenery, or, as it would become two centuries later, an employment excuse for someone's love interest.65 Lully also expanded the orchestra and invented the French Overture,66 which he devised in three sections: “...a slow, massive first movement, then a lively fugal movement, then a melodious slow movement.”67 Lully wrote engaging music which presented realistic, vivid images of storms, thunder, battles, and celestial, infernal and pastoral settings. Aside from opera and orchestral music, Lully also composed Church music.68
Originally presented in 2000 by Opera Atelier, this DVD (EuroArts DVD 2054178) of Persée is from the 2004 revival production filmed at the Elgin Theater, Toronto, on April 28, 2004 and in cooperation with the CBC for television broadcast. This presentation of Lully's masterpiece goes a long way to dispel the notion that opera has to be stripped naked or dressed a la moderne in order to be approachable by new, or younger audiences. All it has ever taken is a little historical knowledge and producers who are well informed—not only about the score and libretto, but also about the subtleties of time and place—just like the producers of this DVD are. Overall, Lully's Persée could not get any better than this.
This Opera Atelier production is appropriate for a XVII Century performance at Versailles: Dora Rust-D'Eye's historically informed costumes are beautifully executed with superior attention to detail, and Gerard Gaucci's set design is faithful to the period. The stage is sparsely decorated with parquet floors, Louis XIV bergères and other period furnishings. Panels, representing columns in a palace hall, line the sides of the stage helping define the perspective; in the rear, different back-drops denote the various locations in the libretto: arches for the inside of the Ethiopian palace; a fountain to denote the gardens or the outdoors; clouds with superimposed swirls of red for Medusa's cave; stylized boulders and cut out waves for the shoreline, etc.69 In typical Baroque fashion, there are “mechanical” elements: Mercure's “cloud” surrounded by the rays of the sun, Venus' castle, a “mechanical” dragon that threatens Andromède, singers and dancers that “fly,” etc.
Not all is “period” or stale; there are carefully placed updated touches to appeal to modern audiences and to relieve some of the inherent formality of the piece: Jeanette Zingg's choreography shifts from traditional and “action” dances to stylized “modern,” and combinations of the two. Dora Rust-D'Eye's dance costumes cleverly mix contemporary idioms with traditional and baroque standards. In contrast to the principal singers who are always in period costume, Medusa and her sisters parody traditional ballet in their stylized movements and their modern travesti dress, as do three dancing gods from Hades who are dressed in flesh toned leotards adorned with swaths of red flames, or the two dancing cyclops who appear almost nude.
The stage direction by Marshall Pynkoski is in line with what today is known of Baroque stagings. Pynkoski has the singers behave as Greek actors, and not singers: they use stylized limited hand and arm movements; at times they stand stage front and sing to the audience rather than to each other, most noticeable in the Persée-Andromède love duet, “Ah! Vostre péril est extrême!”70 There are other smart elements in Pynkoski's direction: unbeknown to the theater audience or DVD viewers, a dancer replaces Persée for the hero's and Mercure's flight in search of Medusa. Persée's “flight” is in the form of grand Jetés while Mercure is carried away on a cloud.71 The dancer again re-appears as Persée, when the hero attacks the sea monster and liberates Andromède and, later in Act V, in the sword-fight scene. Medusa and her sisters/Gorgons are well acted as pouting “Drag Queens.” Though it originally received some criticism, this directional choice is not offensive, and the interpretation is valid: it would have been difficult for today's audiences, not familiar with Baroque opera, to understand the travesti scene—it was the Baroque performance practice to use male voices for unconventional, anomalous or ridiculous (as in comedy) female characters.72
There are other changes to the directions in the libretto; however, none that would have made great or negative impact. Overall, the opera is complete with some exceptions: as already mentioned, the Prologue was eliminated, as was Scene 4 in Act III where the Gorgons try to kill an invisible Persée after the hero's slaying of Medusa. Also eliminated is the beginning of Scene 7 in Act IV, prior to the Gigue, to avoid having both the dancing and the singing Persée together on stage, at the same time. The Ethiopians which follow the Gigue, in Act IV, Scene 7, are eliminated and their lines are sung by Mercure.
There are moments when the all important diction in French could use some improvement, or is not as clear as it could be; there are moments when a note is a bit forced, or a singer is short of breath. Yet, in spite of these minor moments, the young ensemble of singers is stellar, and displays a consistent aura of professionalism and performance quality more seasoned “stars” have yet to achieve. This group has also benefited from having sung together in any number of different productions for Opera Atelier as well as in other companies throughout North America.
Three other cast members are worthy of mention: Colin Ainsworth, Vilma Vitols, and Curtis Sullivan. While none of these singers have a major “star” role, they have charged their characters with larger importance through their interpretations.
Colin Ainsworth's lighty lyric tenor is an ideal instrument for Mercure who, as sung by Ainsworth, borders on being a Castrato role. One of Canada's emerging mezzo-sopranos, Vilma Vitol has an expressive instrument; she is capable of being a fierce Nymphe Guerrière and a regal Venus. Had it not been cut, it would have been interesting to see what Vitols would have done in the Prologue, as Venus. Versatile Bass-Baritone Curtis Sullivan is effective in his transformation from the lead Cyclop, to Sténone, one of Medusa's travesti Gorgons, to the lead Triton (who also dances), to the Grand Pêtre; the Gorgon being most memorable.73 To his many credits, Sullivan has added the role of Bluebeardd in the premiere of Howard Alexander's The Last Wife; Sullivan also appears as Sarastro, along with Olivier Laquerre, in The Mozart Diaries.
The all important Corps de Ballet so essential in Lully's works, here represented by the Artists of Atelier Ballet, is outstanding. The games for Juno, the Gigue and the Passacaille, are particularly rewarding.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Hervé Niquet, and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir are without fault.
For a small company presenting a limited repertoire, and one that does not involve the “war horses,” Opera Atelier rivals any company with a large endowment and access to singers with more “star” power74
Lully died as he rose to power: in the service and under the protection of the king. Aside from the many royal patents issued to the composer, Lully was the beneficiary of the king's personal friendship: they were contemporaries, only five years apart, and as young men they had shared participation in many dance performances at court.75
As king, Louis XIV saw that Lully was always at his side and the composer was well rewarded for his dedication to the monarch. When Court gossip reached a fever point, and Madame de Maintenon's strict decorum was offended by Lully's openly homosexual lifestyle and public disregard to his marriage vows, Louis XIV reprimanded the composer, but the king's displeasure never went further that that—a perk that no one else enjoyed at court. Lully reciprocated the friendship and was well aware of the benefit of having the king on his side. In the dedication of the score of Phaëton, the composer writes to the monarch, “...the approbation that Your Majesty has given to this work has brought me the most profound joy I have yet felt.... It is also an Academy, made up of numerous musicians, that I present to you. You have given me permission to create it, I have devoted myself to its training [and] I finally have the satisfaction of seeing that the greatest King who ever ruled does not consider it unworthy of appearing before him.”
On January 6, 1687, the composer stubbed a toe while leading76 a Te Deum in celebration of the king's recovery from an illness. The wound did not heal properly and the composer refused to have an operation to stop the spread of gangrene; he died two months later, on March 22, 1687.
Lully was quoted in the Mercure de France saying that he had learned everything by the age of seventeen, and that he had spent the rest of his life perfecting that knowledge. Lully's dedication to perfecting his knowledge bore fruit in the Tragédie Lyrique, “...the only important independent offshoot of the Italian Baroque opera.”77 Eventually it rejoined its Italian counterpart but not before putting its own stamp on the art form. Lully's influence in opera is extensive, not only in style and structure, but in the number of other composers who followed his path.
“The public received this tragedy with an inexpressible satisfaction. Each day this work's brilliant and continued success makes obvious, even to those most likely to let themselves be swept away the novelty's charm, that what is truly beautiful never ages and sooner than later will regain its rights.”
No, this is not a review of Opera Atelier's Toronto performance, but one that appeared in Le Mercure de France in 1737 for a Paris Opéra revival of Lully's masterpiece, Persée. It is just as valid today.
Daniel Pardo-Rangel © 2008
This article first appeared in Opera Today, 13 November, 2008
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The Art of Singing
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The Experience of Opera
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3The French referred to their operas a “Lyric Tragedies” to emphasize the importance of language over music and to differentiate their style from that of their Italian counterparts.
4King Louis XIV (September 5, 1638-September 1, 1715) was a regular dancer at the ballet performances given at Court theaters.
5Poet Philippe Quinault was exiled for his negative depiction of the king's mistress, Madame de Montespan
6Virtue: “Let us seek refuge from the oppressive grandeur of pomp; this retreat is tranquil and attractive.” A reference to Versailles as compared to the hectic life in Paris, and a nod to Madame de Maintenon who, in spite of being the king's new mistress, was “puritanical” and a strict follower of court decorum.
7Virtue: “The prizes I bear you are not easily obtainable; they cost a thousand efforts and they make thousands jealous....”
8Antonio García Gutiérrez' (July 5, 1812-August 6, 1884) El trovador (1836), later the basis for Verdi's Il trovatore, comes to mind.
10Laquerre plays dual roles in this performance: Céphé, the king of Ethiopia, and the Gorgon, Medusa.
20The son of a Paris master baker, French poet, dramatist, and librettist, Philippe Quinault (June 3, 1635, Paris-November 26, 1688, Paris) was educated at the urging and with the help of Françoise Tristan l'Hermite, author of Marianne, and for whom the young man worked as a valet. From 1646 to 1651, Quinault studied with Maître êcrivan Philippe Mareschal who taught him enough Latin to enable the student to qualify for studies at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoyne. At the age of eighteen, Quinault successfully staged his frist play, the comedy, Les Rivales in 1653,at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. He wrote close to twenty other comedies, tragi-comedies, and tragedies, in the next seventeen years: La mère coquette (1653; La géneréuse ingratitude (1654); L'amant indiscret ou le Maître étourdi (1654); La comédie sans comédie (1655); Les coups de l'Amour et de la Fortune in collaboration with Tristan (1655); Le marriage de Cambyse (1656); Fedra (1656); Amalasonte (1657); Le feint Alcibiade (1658); Le fantôme amoreux (1659); La mort de Cyrus (1659); Stratonice (1660);Agrippa ou le faux Tiberinus (1662); Astrate, roi de Tyr (1664); La mêre coquette (1665); La grotte de Versailles (1668); Pausanias (1668); and Bellérophon (1671).
Success was not slow in coming. After the premiere of Les Rivales, Quinault became a lawyer, and in 1660 married a wealthy widow, Louise Goujon, whose finances helped him secure a position at court as “escuyer, valet de chambre du Roi.” Quinault was elected to the Académie Française in 1670, and became one of the original members of the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Medailles, better known as “Le Petite Académie,” in 1674.
After much fame and success, the turning point in Quinault's career came in 1671 when, along with Molière and Corneille (who provided the spoken dialogue), he was asked to contribute the poetry for Psyché which was set to music by Lully, and for whom Quinault wrote thirteen other libretti: two large scale ballets, Le triomphe de l'amour (1681), and Le temple de la paix (1685), and eleven operas.
While Boileau, La Fontaine and Racine, among others, delighted in criticizing Quinault's verses as long winded and monotonous, and for adding more than necessary importance to secondary characters, Quinault's genius rests in his mastery of the language and his ability to suggest so much with so few words; he, more than most, understood and applied the importance of pitch in the voice as it rises or falls, and the timing and length of a pause to heighten the meaning of a word. His years as a playwright gave Quinault unusual insight into the musicality of words and lyric poetry, which he put to great use in the libretti he wrote for Lully.
Quinault organized words into certain patterns to denote, intensify, or emphasize the dramatic situation or mental state of the characters, and to fit the speed of delivery by the addition or deletion of a vowel or consonant. Lully, who organized sounds in a similar fashion, easily understood Quinault's technique, and wrote appropriate music to heighten the intensity of the prose.
Aside from plays and libretti, Quinault also wrote more than sixty airs, divertissements, and several ballet plots, Lysis et Herpérie (1660); Les ballet des muses (1666); Les fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus (1672); Le triomphe de l'amour (1681), and Le Temple de la paix (1685) among them.
Little known today, Philippe Quinault was, in his lifetime and for many years after, on a par with the greatest men of letters: he worked alongside of Molière and Corneille, his rivalry with Racine is the stuff of legend, and his plays enjoyed long runs; many were played well into the Nineteenth Century. Of the eleven opera libretti Quinault wrote for Lully, four were used by later composers: Armide (Gluck and Mysliveček); Atys and Roland (Piccini); and Prosperine (Paisiello).
Ill health forced Quinault to request the release from his post as official librettist. In April 1686 the king, Louis XIV, granted the writer a pension and decorated him with the Order of Saint-Michel. Quinault was 53 years old when he died two years later, on November 26, 1688.21Madame de Montespan, October 5, 1641-May 27, 1707
23By 1667, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouard-Mortemart (October 15-May 27, 1707), marquise de Montespan, had replaced Louise de la Vallière as the king's mistress; a position she held until the king fancied Françoise d'Aubigne, Madame Scarron (1635-1719), the governess to the King's and Madame de Montespan's illegitimate children. In 1675, Louis XIV gave d'Aubigne the title of Madame de Maintenon and by the time of Persée's first performance (1682), she had become the official mistress to the king. They were secretly married in 1683.
29“The possibility of their marriage satisfies my desires and is my last hope”... “What differences are capable of breaking such elegant knots?”
39“In its formative years in the seventeenth century, opera seria was more spectacle than music, and the early Venetian stage mechanics and scene painters contrived wondrous representations of battles, earthquakes, floods, thunder and lighting, conflagrations and fat clouds bursting to reveal heavenly choirs....The most elaborate of such productions were reserved for special occasions—a coronation, a royal wedding or birth, [or] a state visit....” Pleasants, 1966, pg. 30
In this respect, French and Italian stage presentations were no different: a visual orgy of mechanical fantasy, elaborate scenery and spectacular costumes. This practice originated in 1637 Venice with the first opera to be publicly performed, Andromeda, text by Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) and music by Francesco Manelli (1595-1667).
40At this time in France, the term “Opera” was reserved for works composed in the “Italian” style.
41Born in Lyon, Pierre Perrin (1620-1675) arrived in Paris in 1628; there, he worked in the household of the Duke of Orleans. Perrin was a poet, a dancer, and dabbled in music.
42The precurson to the Académie Royal de musique
43In spite of the many setbacks that befell the opening of the Paris Académie, Pomone enjoyed an eight month run
44Composer Robert Cambert (1628-1677) first appears in Paris as an organist and by 1627 he had set some of Perrin's poems to music. Two years later they cooperated on the Pastorale d'Issy which was followed by a commission from Cardinal Mazarin for another Pastorale, Ariane, ou Le mariage de Bacchus. Along with Perrin, Cambert obtained a privilege to establish Royal Académies, the first of which opened in Paris in 1671 with Cambert's and Perrin's opera, Pomone. After Perrin's imprisonment and Lully's ascent, Cambert went to the court of Charles II in England where, in 1677, he committed suicide
44Perrin's partership with Robert Cambert, the Marquis de Sourdéac and Laurent Bersac, Sieur de Champeron, had a promising start, but from early on there were managerial and financial problems which culminated with embezzlement. Three months into the run of Pomone, the singers had not been paid, and twice Perrin was incarcerated for debt and eventually forced to sell part of his interest to his associates
45In order to silence the opposition, Louis XIV ordered the Lieutenant of Police to close down Perrin's theater. The king also revoked all privileges previously granted to Perrin—in effect eliminating any claims by Perrin's partners to the 1669 patent
46Even more than Perrin whose patent gave him a monopoly on opera production for only 12 years
47Lully has been accused of being ruthless and greedy. In retrospect, he acted in accordance to the standard of the time and as everyone else did in order to survive the self-serving and backstabbing court environment. If anything, Lully may have been more restrained and savvier than other courtiers: early on, Louis XIV had granted Lully a patent to nobility which entitled the composer to the aristocratic “de” before his last name. Lully waited to put the patent to use until after purchasing the post of Secréaire du Roi, in 1681, at a time when no one could dispute his position, prestige, and power at court. From then on, the composer signed his name “de Lully” and was addressed as “Monsieur de Lully”
48The character of Mérope was borrowed by Quinault from a Venetian opera on the same subject, Andromeda, with libretto by Benedetto Ferrari, music by Francesco Manelli
49Persée is faithful to the structure of the pastorale en musique which Lully collaborated with Moliere: prologue, five acts, aristocratic escapism, elaborate stagings, etc.
50Persée CD Liner Notes, pg. 25
51In this DVD, Persée and Andromède make cameo appearances in Act I. In this and in subsequent acts other characters, too, make cameo appearances contrary to the directions in the libretto
52When confronted by Andromède (“If you were to win...would you seek to break these bonds?”), Persée replies with “kingly” virtue: “I shall be unhappy...[b]ut I shall die contented if you can live happily.”
53“Unfortunate those, whom a terrible monster...He loves me much....”
54 “You love him”
55“Gods, you who have predestined me”
56“No, do not delude yourself[,] you love me in vain; Phineus has won my heart....What, are you leaving me forever, Perseus? Stay, stay...You are in extreme peril!...Oh gods! Save him whom I love.”
57One wonders why Louis XIV would have picked the subject matter for this opera. The hero in Ovid's tales does not so much conquer Medusa on his own merits as Louis XIV had done to conquer his enemies. Persée is aided by the gods to become invisible, he is given a protective shield, a sword, and wings to aid him in his venture while Medusa is put to sleep, therefore rendering her helpless and an easy prey for Persée's execution. There are, however, attributes in the mythological hero which the Sun King may have seen as a parallel: Persée's favorite status with the gods and his dedication and victory over evil for the benefit and protection of the people of Ethiopia. Like all kings, before and after him, Louis XIV believed in the Divine Right to rule and he viewed himself as the benevolent protector of the people.
58“Ah! You are in extreme peril!”
59Gluck, Cherubini, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Rossini, Hahn, Stravinsky and others settled in France, where they became internationally known.
60Though the title of “Father of French Opera” is well suited for Lully, the title of “First Composer” of French opera goes to Robert Cambert, Maître de Musique to the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. His opera, Pomone (1671), was an immediate success when it premiered at the Académie. Some say that Cambert's earlier work, Pastorale d'Issy (1659) is the first French play set to music; however, that honor goes to Charles de Bey's and Michel de La Guerre's Le triomphe de l'Amour (1655). Pierre Corneille's Andromèda was the first work to incorporate the different arts in a French machine play
61Henderson, 1938, p.137
62Anthony, 1980, p. 42
63In Persée, the libretto calls for a ballet in all acts except Act III which calls for the actors to “fly”
64Medusa and her Gorgons are required to move around the stage in a stylized “dance” and one triton is required to sing, as well
65The ballet in the French Grand Opera of the Nineteenth Century always took place in the third act to coincide with the entrance into the theater of the well to do male patrons, whose mistresses were members of the corps de ballet
66This style of “Overture” influenced Handel, Bach, and Haydn who used its structure in the development of the Sonata
67History of Music, 1907, p. 241
68With Molière, Lully wrote the Comedies-Ballets: Le mariage forcé (1664); La princesse d'Elide (1664); L'amour médicin (1665); Le Sicilien (1667); Georges Dandin (1668); Monsieur de Purceaugnac (1669); Les amants magnifiques (1670) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670).
Lully composed a number of Tragédies en musique, most to a libretto by Philippe Quinqult: Les fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus (Pastiche assembled by P. Quinault from fragments of different ballets, 1672); Cadmus et Hermione (P. Quinault, 1673); Alceste (P. Quinault, 1674); Thésée (P. Quinault, 1675); Atys (P. Quinault, 1676); Isis (P. Quinault, 1677); Psyché (Thomas Corneille, 1678); Bellérophon (T. Corneille and Berbard le Bovier de Fontenelle, 1679); Prosperine (P. Quinault 1680); Persée (P. Quinault, 1682); Phaëton (P. Quinault, 1683); Amadis de Gaule (P. Quinault, 1684); Roland (P. Quinault, 1685); Armide (P. Quinault, 1686); Acis et Galathée (Pastoral-héroïque in prologue and three acts by Jean Galbert de Campistron, 1686); Achille et Polixène (J. Galbert de Campistron, produced posthumously,1687)
69Just as in Lully's time, this kind of staging is necessitated by the need to house the many dancers required for the ballets in the opera. In some scenes, the limited size of the Elgin Theater also necessitated the use of side, proscenium boxes for the chorus and other singers
70“Ah! Your peril is extreme.” Act II, Scene 6
71There is no mention of the dancer's name in the credits, but the benefit of “rewind” gives the DVD viewers an advantage over those present in the theater. Though the dancing double looks like, and is dressed just like Persée, one can tell them apart, in the close-up shots, in what little of the face remains to be seen under the helmet
72One criticism of the comedic aspect of this scene is that by the time of Persée, “comedy” had disappeared from Lully's operas
73Sullivan also makes a cameo appearance in a non speaking role in Act V, Scene 8
74Until recently, Baroque opera, with the exception of Mozart, some Gluck and Handel, is not as well known in the United States and few companies risk giving such performances: audience interest is limited. One exception is New York City Opera's commitment to presenting all of Handel's operas, as well as presenting Monteverdi, Gluck, and Rameau. Other than scenes or arias in concerts, starting in 1884, the Met ventured into this territory with Handel's Messiah in 1895 and again in 1902. After an eighty two year hiatus, Handel returned with a production of Rinaldo (1984), Samson (1986), Giulio Cesare (1988, 1999, 2000, 2007), and Rodelinda (2004, 2005, 2006). Gluck has fared better starting with Orfeo et Euridice (1885, 1891, 1893, 1895, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1914, 1936, 1938, 1941, 1955, 1957, 1962, 1970, 1972, 2007), Armide (1910, 1911, 1912), Iphiginie en Tauride (1916, 2007), and Alceste (1941, 1952, 1960). Rameau is absent and Monteverdi is represented as part of a concert with one performance of L'Orfeo, sung in English (1912).
75On February 23, 1653, fifteen year old Louis XIV and Lully took part in Ballet de la nuit—an allegory to the passing of time from night to day, from darkness to light. First performed at the the Louvre, Salle du Petit-Bourbon, the ballet was commissioned to celebrate the defeat of the Fronde and the king's return to Paris. There are conflicting stories as to who the librettist or the composer was, though some attribute the music to Lully.
However, it is generally accepted that it is from the character of the same name that the king danced in Ballet de la nuit, and the lithographs of the king in costume, that the sobriquet of “The Sun King” became forever associated with Louis XIV
76Louis XIV was the first monarch to have a court “conductor” in the modern sense of the word.
77Lang, Experience of Opera 1971, p.23