Lully Psyche CVS086

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Psyché (1678)
Ambroisine Bré (mezzo) – Psyché; Femme Affligée
Bénédicte Tauran (soprano) – Venus; Muse
Deborah Cachet (soprano) – Amour; Agalour; Nymphes
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. January 2022, L’Opéra Royal de Versailles
Booklet with full French text and translations in English, German
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS086
[2 CDs: 144]

Psyché Lully’s tragédie lyrique from 1678, is a work born of the composer’s spite and concurrent court intrigue. Lully adapted an earlier dramatic work that he had composed musical interludes for in 1671 with texts by Lully’s long time collaborator Philippe Quinaut. By 1678 Quinault and Lully had fallen out and Quinault was also persona non grata at Versailles because of ongoing court intrigues surrounding the mistresses of Louis XIV. In choosing to adapt their earlier work into a full-fledged tragédie lyrique Lully was deliberately thumbing his nose at his former librettist. Despite this background, the opera itself is one of Lully’s most imaginative works for the stage and displays his compositional skills more fully than some of his other works of this period.

The new recording from Versailles is chiefly valuable for the energized leadership of Christophe Rousset, conducting his usual team of Les Talens Lyriques. Rousset brings his customary rhythmic drive and vitality to 17th century repertoire. His direction of the recitatives is fluid and expressive and the many orchestral dances seem to soar from the pages of the 345-year-old score. There are some particularly interesting percussion effects in Act Two which hint at the unseen character of the Cyclops, who is engaged in building a place for Cupid. Tiny details such as these are purposely delineated in Rousset’s direction.

The assembled cast is mostly made up of native-born French singers along with a couple of outsiders whose French is near-perfect. It is always a pleasure to encounter the text sung with such clear and natural sounding French diction. Several members of the cast sing double or triple roles, which sometimes makes thing a bit hard to distinguish among the voices. The role of Venus is confidently sung by Bénédicte Tauran. In this opera Venus is a more malign presence than in other works, and Ms Tauran shows complete immersion in the character of the jealous goddess. As Psyché, the object of Venus’ scorn, Deborah Cachet’s pleasing mezzo shows warmth and expressive phrasing. Cupid (Amour)is given to both Ms Cachet and Cyril Auvity to sing. Cachet sings the role when Cupid is in an unseen spirit guise and Auvity when the God takes on the visible form of a man. This can be a bit confusing but Auvity’s shapely phrasing and clear tone makes for a most attractive Cupid. Among the rest of the cast Anas Séguin reveals an expressive and rounded bass as both Lycas and Le Roi. However; Ambroisine Bré is captured unflatteringly by the microphones, which pick up an unpleasant whine whenever she applies pressure to her tone for dramatic effect. Among the non-native singers, Zachary Wilder has a strikingly lovely timbre and the full measure of true French Baroque style.

There is one previous recording of this opera on the CPO label with the Boston Early Music Festival in 2008 (review). It has several advantages over the current one. For one thing the Boston recording was made in a slightly more spacious and therefore vocally flattering acoustic than the rather close, dry sound that is a regular feature of recordings made at the Opera in Versailles. The musical direction in Boston is shared between Paul Odette and Stephen Stubbs. Under their guidance Lully’s music does receive some value from their more expansive approach to the music than Roussets. Although when crisp vitality is called for then Rousset is your man. The CPO cast features two really commanding performances by Karina Gauvin and Carolyn Sampson. Sampson’s sweetly pure-voiced Psyché makes the most appealing heroine imaginable, while Gauvin gives a stunningly etched impersonation of the jealous Venus. Both of these singers rather overshadow their counterparts on the new Rousset recording. The rest of the CPO cast is excellent although it is inevitable that not everyone’s French is as good as that of the Versailles cast. The CPO booklet also has far more in-depth documentation about the opera and the court intrigues that surrounded its creation. If I was forced to choose between the two, I would opt for the CPO. I would however; miss out on Rousset’s dynamic conducting of his splendid ensemble which is the chief reason to acquire this recording.

Mike Parr

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Other performers:
Cyril Auvity (tenor) – Vertumne; Amour Jeune Home; Mercure
Robert Getchell (tenor) – Vulcain; Homme Affligée; Furie
Eugénie Lefebvre (soprano) – Flore; Cidippe; Nymphes; Muse
Anas Séguin (baritone) – Lycas; Le Roi; Momus; Le Fleuve; Furie
Zachary Wilder (tenor) – Apollon; Zéphire; Satyre
Philippe Estèphe (baritone) – Jupiter; Homme Affligé; Satyre
Fabien Hyon (tenor) – Palémon; Silene, Zéphire; Furie; Bacchus
Matthew Heim
Dominique Bonnetain
Benoît Porcherot