French Baroque opera is at last making serious inroads into the UK’s musical landscape. While Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea is still playing to appreciative audiences at English National Opera, Christophe Rousset’s ‘Les Talens Lyriques’ brought a superlative performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Phaëton to the Barbican.
Phaëton was the tenth of Lully’s tragedies-lyriques, with a libretto by Philippe Quinault. By the time he wrote it in 1683 Lully was the undisputed master of the French stage and the chief arbiter of musical taste in Paris and beyond. He had perfected an operatic form which continued to hold sway after his death in 1687 until the innovations of Rameau fifty years later. This genre fuses music, drama and stage effects into a pre-Wagnerian ‘total artwork’.
Although a little complex, Phaëton’s plot proceeds relatively swiftly, uncluttered by lengthy arias and convoluted sub-plots. Instead, flexible recitatives and arioso passages interweave with choruses and dance movements to give a musical richness and variety. Lully’s main weakness, however, is his failure to develop characters fully. And, unlike Rameau, he never bothers much with orchestral description. He presumably preferred to leave the scene painting to the famed theatrical sets and machinery of the opera houses at Versailles and Paris.
As the eponymous hero, tenor Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro had some of the least interesting music to sing. What he did have, was warmly delivered, despite some strain in the haut-contre register. Much more exciting was the music for Libye – in love with someone else, but forced to betrothe Phaëton and then dumped by him. Singing in fine French, Sophie Bevan brought poise and sparkle to this part, and her duets with Andrew Foster-Williams as Épaphus (the real object of her affections) were sublime. As Phaëton’s amoureuse, Isabele Druet also brought a well-considered expressiveness to the role, although her outstretched hand gestures appeared melodramatic and distracting at times. Ingrid Perruche arguably had the strongest dramatic sense as Phaëton’s ambitious mother, Clymène. Virginie Thomas, stepped out from the Namur Chamber Choir to take on several smaller roles, singing them with delicacy and finesse.
The Choir itself was on top form, making the most of Lully’s extensive choruses in the opera – sometimes commenting on the drama; sometimes acting as full participants in the story. Presiding over the whole ensemble stood Christophe Rousset – except when he was sitting down to play the harpsichord part. Les Talens Lyriques’ playing was as expert as one would expect, with some particularly good work coming from the small woodwind section. The dance movements were especially well played, with Rousset adding warmth and flair to the proceedings.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk