Lully acis 37971

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Acis et Galatée, Pastorale héroïque in Three Acts and a Prologue (1686)
Libretto by Jean Galbert de Campistron (from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”)
Acis: Jean-François Lombard
Galatée: Elena Harsanyi
Poliphème: Luigi De Donato
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/ Federico Maria Sardelli, Benjamin Lazar (stage direction)
rec. 9 July 2022, Sala Zubin Mehta, Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Florence, Italy
Dynamic 37971 DVD [112]

Louis XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1672 basically to run opera in France: no one could stage a spectacle without his permission. But when the Sun King got a new and pious wife in 1686, Lully’s power declined. Then Philippe Quinault, his usual skilled librettist, turned to the creation of sacred works. Despite these setbacks, Lully’s next work, Acis et Galatée, is regarded as his last masterpiece. The tale (familiar for many from Handel’s treatment) is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The love of the giant cyclops Poliphème for the nymph Galatée, and the destruction and transformation of her true love Acis, was well enough organised in Campistron’s libretto to give mucg scope for the composer’s skill.

The work is not in the more familiar vein of the tragédie en musique. It is styled a pastorale héroïque: love between shepherds and shepherdesses, a rural setting, and interventions by the gods. It could have all been too “pastoral precious”, but there are lively dances (both the King and Lully were dancers), stirring choruses and sufficient contrast of voice types and airs. Galatée has a fine, substantial – nearly eight-minute – solo in the third act, a magnificent closing passacaille soon follows This is the work’s first filmed recording. Well done to Florence and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale! Versailles must be envious, watching Italy reclaim the Florentine Giovanni Battista Lulli with one of his best pieces.

Lully wrote the opera (if I can call it from now on) for the Dauphin’s visit to a chateau at Anet, guest at a hunting party there. The chateau did not have the stage resources of Paris, so the traditional spectacle was greatly curtailed, but it was enjoyed enough to be given five times in the week. Later it was done in Paris with all the stage machinery the genre needed.

But it must have appeared a little homespun to that first post-hunt and post-dinner evening audience, and that is echoed in this intelligent production. Alain Blanchot’s costumes serve well enough, and have an improvised air, as if pulled from the dressing-up box. (Do children still have those?) There are striking details such as the one-eyed headpiece for the cyclops Poliphème. Apollo’s golden boots and jacket, unzipped so we can see his godlike torso, serve to characterize the Sun god and deity of light, without removing him very far from the human domain. The characters enter at the outset in contemporary clothes, and most do not need further adornment. For the closing scenes in Neptune’s domain, long, lightly flowing pale blue robes are worn by Neptune and his accompanying dancers. Acis adopts the same robe in his transformation into a river god, after Galatée has discovered his bloody death by pulling out a blood-red scarf from the rocks. There is no spectacular descent or arrivals for the gods, even Apollo (in a pair of golden shades) only walks down a short set of wooden steps.

Adelin Caron’s set reflects the same theme. How can we put something on from our limited resources for our tired hunters? The forest-clearing setting is minimalist but effective, with a small stage set up at the back for the entertainment. We are witnessing at various moments both Ovid’s tale and the creation of Lully’s Acis et Galatée in a 17th-century aristocratic hunting lodge. This clever conceit, well thought through, leaves scope for a more spectacular Chateau de Versailles production at a later date, perhaps.

The singers are all good, well versed in the vocal style. Tenor Jean-François Lombard’s Acis is very well sung, in the French haut-contre manner. Galatea is his match, for soprano Elena Harsanyi has perhaps the best of the female voices, lovely throughout its register. When these two lovers argue, they are histrionically and vocally committed and touching. We forget about the well-crafted reproduction of an old genre and are caught up in the dramatic development. Poliphème has a more elaborate costume than most, emphasizing his outsider status, as well as his somewhat grotesque appearance. Luigi De Donato sings his rather ungrateful role in decent French, and does not overdo the villainous histrionics. The destruction of his rival Acis is so unobtrusive it seems reluctant, despite the announcement “Oh what pleasure for an insulted heart is bloody vengeance!”

All the other roles are well sung and acted. Some singers take two or three roles (more recourse to the dressing-up box). Benjamin Lazar, who has contributed to other filmed Lully operas, directs his characters and their movements to ensure the plot is taken seriously (no sending up a famous tale) and moves along clearly. Even the dances choreographed by Gudrun Skamletz are straightforward, never more elaborate than they need to be. Setting, costumes, movement, stage direction and musical style – these are good young voices – are all of a piece, give a unified vision.

The performance in the pit on original instruments is exemplary, spirited or lyrical as required. Conductor Federico Maria Sardelli seems imbued with the spirit of the age in his musicianship. He attends closely to metrical and dynamic switches, and finds tempi that suit the singers and dancers for the varied moods of the score. Perhaps he tempts fate in using at some points a long staff to beat time, banging it on the podium quite audibly. (Lully notoriously died from this practice. He hit his own foot, and that led to an infection and death from gangrene poisoning in March 1687, just six months after the premiere of Acis et Galatée.)

There are no rivals to a filmed premiere, of course. Even when another comes along, this distinctive approach will stay valid.

Roy Westbrook

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Other cast
Diane / Deuxième Naïade / Scylla: Valeria La Grotta
L’Abondance / Aminte / Première Naïade: Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli
Comus / Tircis: Markus Van Arsdale
Apollon / Le Prêtre de Junon / Télème: Sebastian Monti
Neptune: Guido Loconsolo
Une Dryade: Silvia Spessot
A Sylvain: David Piva

Production staff
Choir director: Lorenzo Fratini
Dancers: Caroline Ducrest, Robert Le Nuz, Alberto Arcos, Gudrun Skamletz
Choreography: Gudrun Skamletz
Set designer: Adelin Caron
Costume designer: Alain Blanchot

Video details
Picture format: 16: 9; Sound format: Dolby digital 5.1; PCM 2.0
Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
Booklet notes: Italian,English
Region code: 0 – All regions