Opera Album Review: Old Enough to Be New Again — A Staggeringly Beautiful Recording

By Ralph P. Locke

This recording of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Psyché provides non-stop pleasure and delights, thanks to the latest developments in early-music performance practice.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Psyché

Ambroisine Bré, Eugénie Lefebvre, sopranos; Bénédicte Tauran, mezzo; Cyril Auvity, Robert Getchell, Zachary Wilder, tenors.

Les Talens Lyriques, cond. Christophe Rousset.

Chateau de Versailles Spectacles 86 [2 CDs] 145 minutes

Click here to purchase. This video trailer gives a taste of the music.

Thirteen years ago, critics hailed a spectacular recording of Lully’s 1678 opera Psyché by the forces of the Boston Early Music Festival. It featured Carolyn Sampson, Karina Gauvin, and Colin Balzer (all early in their splendid careers), and was led by Festival co-directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. But the passage of a dozen years has seen the rise of a whole new generation of equally marvelous early-music singers, and here is a splendid assortment of them. I name six of the singers in the header, and there are seven more participating in this new recording. Most of them take on multiple roles, and all of them join their voices to form the chorus.

Psyché was put together in a few weeks. It is one of a string of works in the tragédie lyrique genre, which would come to include such masterpieces as Armide (Lully’s best-known opera today) and Isis (see my review of Christophe Rousset’s amazing recording here). The libretto seems to have been a collaboration between Thomas Corneille (brother of the renowned writer of spoken tragedies) and Fontenelle. A major structural feature of a tragédie lyrique was the insertion of “divertissements” in the middle of an act or at its end. Fortunately, Lully had already composed extensive musical insertions for Molière’s play of the same name, and he re-used them wholesale (though the plot here differs significantly). Lully was a masterful composer of short arias or duets, dances and choral numbers, and varied their “affect” to suit the particular situation. In Act 3, for example, three (male) Furies, in the underworld, threaten Psyché (some edgy drumming is added here). But, minutes later, they adopt a gentle tone when pleading with other denizens of Hell to expel this intruder.

The plot recounts the attempts of the goddess Venus to prevent Psyché from being lauded by the people of the earth for her beauty and equally to prevent her from falling in love with Venus’s son Cupid (in French: Amour) and marrying him. The successive acts consist of episodes in this story. Act 2, for example, begins with the building of a palace, under Cupid’s orders, to honor Psyché. The blacksmith Vulcan, who is Venus’s husband, leads off here, urging the cyclopses to hasten their work. (Lovely “hammering” is heard in tuned metallic bells.) Venus arrives, is furious, and Vulcan reminds her that her jealousy is pointless and egotistical and also that married love must go its own course. Later acts show Psyché seeking safety in the deep sea, being spirited away to a deserted locale, and descending to hell in order to retrieve a box that (she doesn’t realize) will emit a poisonous odor when opened. In the end, Venus brings the young creature back to life to torture her further, but Jupiter intervenes and declares Psyché immortal. The opera ends in general celebration.

A few months ago, I reviewed here an English opera by Matthew Locke (no relation to me!) that was based more directly on the Molière play. That recording, though stylish in every other way, was disfigured by the inept English pronunciation of the largely Continental singing cast. (As an act of mercy to all concerned, the recording excluded the spoken passages that set up each musical number.)

Here we have an equally gifted group of (it seems) mostly French-born vocalists singing in their native language. What a delight! I must praise again, as I did in my review of Isis, Ambroisine Bré and Cyril Auvity. Philippe Estèphe remains a bit woofy this time around, and baritone Anas Séguin lacks certain crucial low notes when he sings briefly as Momus, the god of satire, in Act 3. But none of this sours my reactions to what is a generally splendid new rendering of one of Lully’s most important works. I was particularly pleased to re-encounter the liquid-voiced Zachary Wilder, whom I praised in a recording of Félicien David’s Le Désert. Here, as Apollo (among other roles), he sounds, well, divine.

Ambroisine Bré (the soprano who plays the much-beleaguered Psyché) with conductor Christophe Rousse. Photo: courtesy of the artist

The multi-talented Christophe Rousset leads the colorful instrumental ensemble from the harpsichord or, occasionally, organ. There are no fewer than five players in the continuo group, including sometimes a lute or a guitar. I loved some of the subtle colors added to the playing, such as the brief weirdly slow vibrato in the dance for the aforementioned demons of the underworld.

The immensely informative booklet includes a synopsis by Lully authority Rebecca Harrick-Warris. The libretto is given in French (plus some bits that are in Italian), German, and English. No need to go online to find out what is happening next! In short, another triumph from the splendid small opera house in the Palace of Versailles.

Oh, one oddity: the libretto doesn’t mention the dance numbers, since they have no text. One finds those mentioned only in the tracklist. I kept being surprised as I followed along, thinking that I was hearing some kind of prelude to an aria, only it kept going on and on! On the plus side, the whole booklet is available online, deeply buried at the Versailles Spectacles site! This will be a great boon for anybody who is streaming the recording (or tracks from it) rather than purchasing the CD set.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is on the editorial board of a recently founded and intentionally wide-ranging open-access periodical: Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal. The present review first appeared, in a somewhat different version, in American Record Guide and is posted here by kind permission.

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