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24.7.05

Summer Opera: Lully's Isis

As previewed in Opera in the Summer 2005 here at Ionarts, Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Isis was heard again in a live performance, after a very long time. When it was premiered in 1677, the opera's ridicule of Juno (who is jealous of Io for her husband's affection) referred too overtly to the king's mistress, Madame de Montespan. As a result, it fell into near-total obscurity. On July 6, to open the ninth annual Festival Musique Baroque en Vendée in western France, conductor Hugo Reyne led his group, La Simphonie du Marais, in a concert performance in the Eglise Saint-Pierre, in Les Lucs sur Boulogne. As far as I know, there were no reviews in the major French press, but I did come across a review by Richard Letawe (La résurrection d'Isis, July 13) for La Scène Lyrique at Resmusica (my translation):

The score did not deserve to be forgotten, rich as it is in all sorts of beauty, notably in the fascinating and terrifying fourth act, in an almost pre-Romantic scene showing the Furies' pursuit of the nymph Io into the darkest parts of the lower world. The libretto is simple: it tells the misfortunes of Io, beloved of Jupiter, whom jealous Juno brings into her retinue to keep an eye on her and then gives as a prisoner to Argus, who also loves Io. Mercury attempts to free the nymph but manages only to provoke Juno's anger, who sends the Furies to pursue her. Io makes it to the mouth of the Nile, where exhausted she implores Jupiter to let her die and escape suffering. He is moved and goes to ask Juno to spare her, in exchange for which he will renounce his love for the nymph. Juno accepts and transforms Io into a goddess who will be called Isis.

For the resurrection of this Isis, the Simphonie du Marais spared no effort, bringing together some excellent players and the flower of French Baroque singing. Françoise Masset sings the role of Io, an obvious miscasting because her volcanic temperament is better suited to the eruptive Juno than a sweet nymph. Her diction, her art of prosody, the amorous passion that he brings into her troubling singing make up for her hard and rather metallic tone. She has made an Act II magnificent in trembling grace and is very moving in her plea to Jupiter.
Baroque singers in this performance whom I have heard recently with the Opera Lafayette here in Washington include Bernard Deletré and Howard Crook, and many other names are indeed familiar. France Musiques broadcast the concert live, and a recording will be available from Accord/Universal by October or November. That will be just in time for the second scheduled performance, with the same forces, on November 22, in the Opéra Royal de Versailles, sponsored by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.

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