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20.8.07

Lully's American Thésée

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Lully, Thésée, Boston Early Music Festival, H. Crook, L. Pudwell, P. O'Dette
(June 26, 2007)
Last January, we reviewed a recital by lutenist Paul O'Dette and soprano Ellen Hargis at the National Gallery of Art. Both are regular participants in the Boston Early Music Festival, where they worked together on this production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Thésée, in 2001. A co-production with Radio Bremen brought the performers to Germany, where this recording was made last September, somewhat surprisingly the only version of the opera now available. The opera was premiered at St.-Germain-en-Laye in 1675, although its prologue is set in the relatively new château of Versailles (which is one way to signal that the listener should read the opera in terms of the life of Louis XIV). The libretto by Philippe Quinault is one of the stranger works of literature, but the story is based upon Plutarch and Ovid, with a few extra characters thrown in to make it read like 17th-century French drama.

Two mythological characters fresh from disastrous romantic liaisons become entangled with one another. The vengeful sorceress Medea, having just gotten murderously even with the unfaithful Jason, falls in love with her later husband's son, Theseus, who has returned to Athens after killing the Minotaur and abandoning Ariadne. (This family history does not get any healthier, since Theseus's son Hippolytus was killed in an accident after he rejected the advances of his stepmother, Phaedra.) As unlikely as the story is for operatic treatment, Handel's later opera Teseo uses a libretto that is basically Quinault's text translated into Italian. After its premiere at St.-Germain-en-Laye in 1675, Thésée was one of Lully's most successful operas, receiving numerous revivals in Paris late into the 18th century. One can actually consult the entire score, from its first printing, online.


Calyx krater (with Medea in her chariot), c. 400 B.C.
Cleveland Museum of Art
In our time, the opera has largely been forgotten, except for a few performances, led by William Christie as part of the Ambronay Festival. Also, Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée will present a staged production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées this February and at the Opéra de Lille in March, with Jean-Louis Martinoty directing and Anne Sofie von Otter as Médée. The Boston instrumental forces have a unified and propelled sound (as in the concluding Chaconne), directed gracefully from the theorbo section by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Any orchestra that has two musette players (Jean-Christophe Maillard and François Lazarevitch) is going to have some vibrant colors available. Laura Pudwell snarls and menaces as Médée, with a thick tone and percussive diction, while experienced Baroque tenor Howard Crook continues to impress with his flexible voice as Thésée. The bass of Harry van der Kamp (Ægée), of the same age as Crook, has aged less gracefully. Ellen Hargis's Æglé is good, but perhaps lacks the naïve shimmer proper to the role.

The test of a recording's merit is generally in the supporting voices, which here are hit-and-miss, with some strained and pushed sounds, as well as occasional lapses in French pronunciation. Suzie LeBlanc (Cleone) and Aaron Sheehan (Un plaisir and other minor roles), both of whom we have reviewed live in recent years, have pleasant turns. It seems unlikely that this recording, as good as it is, will not be bettered by one conducted by either William Christie or Emmanuelle Haïm (the latter seems a quite likely eventuality). However, as that has not yet happened, this 3-CD set is most welcome, and it is complete, with all of the charming dance music (and a liner essay on the dance music by respected scholar Rebecca Harris-Warwick).

cpo 777 240-2

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