Lully Thésée Aparté

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Thésée, LWV 51 – Tragédie en musique in a prologue and five acts (1675)
Mathias Vidal (tenor) – Thésée
Karine Deshayes  (mezzo-soprano) – Médée
Deborah Cachet (soprano) – Églé 
Chœur de Chambre de Namur, 
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 2023, Studio RiffX 1, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris
French and English libretto
Aparté AP325 [3 CDs: 161]

Les Talens Lyriques directed by Christophe Rousset continue their impressive series of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s operas with Thésée, a Tragédie en musique (an early style of French opera) in a prologue and five acts. This three-CD book-set, described as a limited deluxe edition, is the eighth volume of Lully operas that Les Talens Lyriques has now released on Aparté.

Formed in 1991 by Rousset, the French period instruments ensemble is a dedicated exponent of rich European musical tradition. Under Rousset, it has recorded a substantial discography predominantly from the baroque and classical eras with a few forays into early-Romantic works. 

Born in Florence, Lully had an unparalleled rise to fame. He began as a kitchen servant at the royal court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) and rose to become the Sun King’s favourite and earn the patronage needed to achieve the success his talent merited.

Thésée, his third musical tragedy with his librettist Philippe Quinault, was premiered before Louis XIV who had commissioned it. On the opening page of the manuscript score Lully appended his title surintendant de la musique du Roi (superintendent of the music of the King). 

Lully’s progressive design of opera combining music, drama and dance was known as a Tragédie en musique and later retitled as a Tragédie lyrique. Lully and Quinault incorporated dance – and sometimes acrobatic – roles within a dramatic framework which they saw as part of a whole entertainment package. Director Rousset describes Thésée as ‘essentially a recitative opera’ and the sung recitatives and arias have been designed for accompaniment by a continuo section; he uses here a period edition of rather than a contemporary critical edition.

As with all six of his Ovidian-based librettos, with Thésée, Quinault ‘s was variously faithful to Metamorphoses in a manner aimed at extolling Louis XIV. He drew largely on the narrative of the eponymous hero’s youth, thus avoiding many better-known episodes such as the slaying of the Minotaur. In addition, he also used some of Jean Puget de La Serre’s Thésée, ou Le prince reconnu (1644).

Large sums were spent on the production of Thésée to impress visiting overseas dignitaries with carnival entertainment. To avoid accusations of degrading original works of famous Greek playwrights, the king personally ensured that Quinault’s libretto was scrutinised by experts at the Petite Académie. Its première was given in January 1675 at the royal palace of Saint Germain-en-Laye where Louis XIV and his royal court resided from 1666-81. A significant success for Lully, Thésée stayed in the repertoire of the Académie royale de musique (eventually the Paris Opéra) for over a hundred years.

Although Thésée (Theseus) the great Athenian hero is given the title role, the principal character is actually Médée (Medea) the evil sorceress, who had murdered her children in revenge against her husband Jason then fled to the court of King Ægeus of Athens who requests her to use her powers to protect Athens from destruction by its enemies. 

Love rivalry is at the centre of the narrative of Thésée. Égée wants to marry his ward, princess Églé, but she is betrothed to the victorious Athenian warrior Thésée. Médée wants him for herself and to break up his relationship with Églé. She uses her magic powers to mentally torment Églé, then persuades Égée that Thésée is a danger to his rule, and that should be poisoned. As the murderous plan is being carried out, Égée recognises Thésée by his sword as his prodigal son and heir to the throne. In a grand gesture, Égée grants Thésée the hand of princess Églé in marriage, but during the nuptials, in another act of revenge Médée descends on her flying chariot drawn by dragons and sets fire to the festive setting. The celebrants cry and plead for help from the gods, and the goddess Minerva descends to restore the wedding celebrations.

Following this studio recording, Rousset took a concert staging to Vienna, Brussels and back to Paris, all to glowing notices. He assembled an impressive cast of nearly all first-language-French-speaking soloists. One of the few on this recording new to Rousset is the cultivated tenor Mathias Vidal in the title role. A specialist in haute-contre roles of the French baroque/classical repertoire, Vidal is celebrated for his inspiring performances of Rameau. Here, he is in outstanding form, displaying great artistic confidence matched by his technical prowess and gift for expression. In Act Four, he excels in the recitative with Médée, and his duets with Églé are beautiful. 

It is a pleasure to hear experienced mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes in the starring role of the evil sorceress Médée.  Her two most notable arias are in Act Two. In Doux repos, innocent paix the sorceress, confides in her companion Dorine, showing her vulnerability and blaming love for her heinous past behaviour. In Dépit mortel, transport jaloux, she vows vengeance on her rival. Deshayes makes a ruthlessly duplicitous and self-serving Médée and singing with considerable vocal energy in the dramatic episodes that can seem a touch harsh when she is under pressure. By comparison, her singing of the recitatives is truly natural.  

Thaïs Raï-Westphal has several roles, notably Dorine, Vénus and one of the two shepherdesses. Vénus’s aria Revenez, Amours, revenez, from the prologue, is quite delightfully sung. As the goddess of love, she displays her light, yet smooth and mellow, tone, luring the Cupids to return to Versailles. Then, in Act Two, she is arresting as Dorine, a confidant of Églé, singing N’aimons jamais, n’aimons guerre describing bewilderment at her deep love for Arcas.   

Belgian soprano Deborah Cachet has the role of Églé. The majority of the princess’ contribution is in Act Four and Cachet can be proud of her performance. There is a youthful purity to her voice that is delightfully expressive, conveying the quality of sincerity.

Making a telling contribution in the roles of Mars and Arcas is bass-baritone Guilhem Worms. In the prologue, to the sound of trumpets and drums, Mars in his chariot makes his appearance. His arias Que rien ne trouble ici Vénus et les Amours and Partez, allez, volez, redoutable Ballone are separated by a short menuet, displaying Worms’ expressive talents and appealing tone. 

The role of Égée is sung effectively by attractive baritone Philippe Estèphe. The Act Two duet Je vois le succès favorable where the king reminds Médée of his promise to marry her, is most enjoyable. Estèphe has admirable clarity and projection, and characterises the role convincingly.

Standing out, too, is the Act Four duet of the shepherdess Que nos prairies Seront fleuries!, exquisitely sung by young Swiss baroque specialist Marie Lys and Raï-Westphal, the accompanying woodwind enhancing the pastoral scene. Maintaining the high standards are the remaining cast-members soprano Bénédicte Tauran as goddess Minerve, and American tenor Robert Getchell who sings his aria as god Bacchus impressively. Fabien Hyon makes a brief yet telling contribution and I would like to hear him in a more substantial role.  

Coached by chorus master Thibaut Lenaerts, the Chœur de Chambre de Namur, Belgium, comprises here of nineteen singers who revel in the abundant choruses Lully has provided, demonstrating unity and communicating satisfying character from the text. The short Warriors Chorus from Act One is ardently presented and the spirited Chorus of the People of Athens, rejoicing in Thésée’s victory, from Act Two is especially enjoyable is. They make a real impact when accompanied by trumpet and drums.

Les Talens Lyriques is chamber-sized, consisting of thirty-one players including a five-strong continuo of strings and keyboard. Rousset directs from the harpsichord, which also forms part of the continuo section. They play with plenty of rhythmic verve, maintain a convincing ensemble, and produce a splendid sound.

The engineering team has provided first-class sound, splendidly balancing the solo singers, chorus, orchestra and continuo section. As we have come to expect from this label, there are top-drawer bilingual booklet notes containing a full libretto, a synopsis, track listing with timings, an essay ‘Lully: Thésée’ by musicologist Pascal Denécheau, and a number of colour pictures.     

Thésée has seldom been recorded; the only other recording I know is from the Boston Early Music Festival Chorus and Orchestra under Paul O’Dette, made in 2006 in the Sendesaal, Bremen on CPO (review); a number of excerpts isavailable on YouTube but I do not consider that it reaches the level of this new release.

Lully designed a magnificent canvas for soloists, chorus and orchestra in Thésée, which was advanced for its time and now sounds glorious in this period-instrument performance.

Michael Cookson

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Other cast
Marie Lys (soprano) – Cléone, Cérès, une bergère
Bénédicte Tauran (soprano) – Minerve
Thaïs Raï-Westphal (soprano) – Dorine, Vénus, une bergère, une divinité
Robert Getchell (tenor) – Bacchus, un Plaisir, un Jeu, un berger, un vieillard, une divinité 
Fabien Hyon (tenor) – Un Plaisir, un Jeu, un vieillard, un combattant, une divinité
Philippe Estèphe (baritone) – Égée 
Guilhem Worms (bass-baritone) – Arcas, Mars, un Plaisir, un Jeu