The fine series of operas from the Boston Early Music Festival, recorded by Radio Bremen, continues with this 3-CD set made during last year's performance of Lully's Psyché. Lully had a life-long fascination with the story of Cupid and Psyche, setting it first as a court ballet with Isaac Benserade in the 1650s and then turning to it again for a 1670 ballet, whose divertissements were reworked as the framework for the full opera recorded here. Les Arts Florissants has recorded some excerpts, but this is the first complete recording. Last year's BEMF release, Lully's Thésée was very good, but this production strikes my ears as even better, largely because of a stronger cast.
Lully, Psyché, C. Sampson, K. Gauvin, Boston Early Music Festival, P. O'Dette, S. Stubbs
(released July 29, 2008)
cpo 777 367-2
Psyché (full score, ed. Nicolas Sceaux)
The production drew a remarkable confluence of music critics, with reviews published by Jeremy Eichler (Boston Globe), Anne Midgette (New York Times), John Yohalem (Opera Today), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), and George Loomis (Financial Times). The photographs of the staging make one wish for a DVD instead of a CD. The thorough and excellent booklet includes essays about the opera by Gilbert Blin, Rebecca Harris-Warwick, John S. Powell (the musicologist who provided the performing edition of the music), and other specialists, which give the listener more information than most probably want or need. These essays explain the parallels intended to be drawn between the story and the court in which it was performed. The god L'Amour (Cupid -- Louis XIV) falls in love with the most beautiful mortal woman, Psyché (Athénaïs de Rochechouart, known as Madame de Montespan, the second of Louis's official mistresses, after Louise de la Vallière). He builds her a palace, as Louis built the Château de Clagny, to keep La Montespan near him at Versailles. (Clagny was later demolished, and its bricks used to build an Ursuline convent at the edge of the village of Versailles.)
Psyché's story was associated with La Montespan in art and music, and the 1678 reworking of the opera was made to celebrate the return of the royal mistress to her former glory at court, after a period in disgrace. The score has a startling range of music, including one of the most extended lament scenes in Baroque opera, the so-called Plainte italienne, a scene sung in Italian and accompanied by extra recorder players on stage. There are also dance scenes for Cyclopes, chain-rattling demons in a celebrated underworld scene, and the Furies given voice by a trio of growling male voices). It is endlessly diverting music, presented in the best possible light by the BEMF Orchestra, led superlatively by theorbists Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs from the continuo section. All of the players are leading players of historical instruments, with especially vigorous and sparkly playing from Kristian Bezuidenhout and Peter Sykes at the harpsichord. A number of bells and other tinkly percussion, as well as glissandi on harpsichord, help give fantastic color to the magical transformation scenes.
Lisa Hilton, Athénaïs: The Life of Louis XIV's Mistress, the Real Queen Of France
The singing is led by two truly excellent sopranos, the luminescent Carolyn Sampson as Psyché and the velvety, fuller Vénus of Karina Gauvin. The chorus is one of the strongest in this sort of recording, made up of the fine singers in the supporting cast, including countertenor José Lemos, tenors Jason McStoots and Aaron Sheehan, and sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Yulia Van Doren. It is not only the sole recording of this important opera, it is hard to imagine it being surpassed by a superior version.