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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632–1687) Thésée - tragédie en musique in a prologue and five
van Doren, Suzie LeBlanc, Amanda Forsythe, Ellen Hargis,
Laura Pudwell, Teresa Wakim (sopranos); Mireille
Lebel (mezzo); Howard Crook, Marc Molomot, Aaron Sheehan
(tenors); Aaron Engebreth (baritone); Harry van der Kamp,
Olivier Laquerre, Marek Rzepka (bass)
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Paul O'Dette,
rec. September 2006, Studio, Radio Bremen, Germany. DDD CPO 777240-2 [3
CDs: 66:04 + 48:22 + 58:52]
Jean-Baptiste Lully was the dominant force in French music
during the reign of Louis XIV. His operas reflect the ideas and
visions of the king. A good example of this is 'Thésée',
which was Lully’s third 'tragédie-lyrique'. It was a resounding
success. Its popularity was such that almost thirty performances
in the Paris Opéra and in the royal residences are documented
between 1675, when the first performance took place, and
1779. It was then taken out of the repertoire by the Opéra
as it was considered a bit old-fashioned.
Let me first give a synopsis. King Aegeus of Athens has promised to
marry the sorceress Medea. But he falls in love with Aegle,
although she loves Theseus, son of the king (although still
unrecognized as such), who also loves her. Aegeus strikes
a deal with Medea, who has set her eyes on Theseus: she gets
him, he gets Aegle. This is summed up in their duet: "Happy
are two inconstant lovers when they are inconstant at the
same time". But Theseus and Aegle don't want to be split
up. Therefore Medea uses all her powers to destroy their
love. But it doesn't have the effect she hoped.
Theseus, who has played a crucial role in the defence of Athens against
its enemies, is going to be named crown prince at the request
of the Athenian people. But when Medea learns that Theseus
is in fact Aegeus's son, she talks the king into giving Theseus
a poisoned chalice during the ceremony. Only in this way
can he avoid losing his power and losing Aegle. But just
as he is about to do so he recognizes Theseus by his sword
as his own son and makes way for Theseus to marry Aegle.
Seeing that her manipulations have had no effect Medea takes
revenge: "the palace appears ablaze, and the dishes
prepared for the feast change into horrible creatures".
The people pray to the gods, and then Minerva appears to
put everything right. The opera ends in a duet with chorus,
praising the power of love.
Operas in France were written within a specific political and social
context. When Philippe Quinault started to write the text,
France was in the middle of a war, in which it was threatened
from several sides at the same time. This must have inspired
Quinault to choose this subject: in the first act we hear
how Athens is in the middle of a war, in which Theseus is
heroically defending the city against its enemies. The battles
are depicted here by choruses of soldiers, who time and again
sing: "We must perish, we must perish, we must triumph
or die". The orchestra plays with trumpets and timpani.
But it is also in this act where Aegle declares her love
The subject of the opera is the conflict between love and war, which
is already indicated in the prologue. The prologue had to
be changed during the process of writing the libretto: in
January of 1675 French troops gained a decisive victory and
the opponent armies were driven out of the country. As a
result some of the original lines, like "Let us flee,
war has returned" had to be replaced. The opposition
between Venus and Mars "neatly represents the 'real-life'
Louis returning victoriously from the battlefront to court
his new mistress", Gilbert Blin, Stephen Stubbs and
Rémy-Michel Trotier write in the booklet. In the prologue – usually
devoted to a glorification of the king – Venus and Mars join
in praise of Louis: "All must love him, all must fear
him. Let us mix chants of victory with the sweet songs of
Although the opera is named after Theseus its central character is
Medea. It is her machinations which decide the course of
events. The subject of the opera – the conflict between love
and war – is most clearly depicted in the direct confrontation
between Medea and Aegle. The first is completely overwhelmed
by thoughts of revenge and is willing to do everything to
realise her wishes, whereas Aegle is true to her love and
is even willing to sacrifice Theseus in order to save his
life. The casting of these two roles is very convincing.
Laura Pudwell gives a brilliant characterisation of the role
of Medea. She has a very strong low register which she uses
to great effect to express the anger of Medea. The sharp
edges of her voice contrast nicely with the much sweeter
voice of Ellen Hargis who gives a moving portrayal of Aegle.
Harry van der Kamp does well in portraying the somewhat split
personality of King Aegeus, good-hearted and loving on one
hand, treacherous on the other. The role of Theseus is less
well developed, but Howard Crook – a veteran in French baroque
opera – sings that role quite beautifully. The other characters,
some of which appear only in one or two acts, are all well
cast – in fact, there are no weak links here.
The choir and orchestra deserve special mention. They play a very
important role in French baroque opera. The choir, including
members of the cast, is excellent and sings with great power
and energy. The orchestra is very colourful and plays the
instrumental dances with great flair and rhythmic flexibility.
Choir and orchestra are decisive in making the most dramatic
moments really telling, like the closing scenes when Medea
unleashes her full powers to take revenge and Minerva and
her followers intervene.
It is understandable that Lully's Theseus was a great success
and was regularly performed for more than a century after
it was created. It is definitely one of Lully's masterpieces.
In general I tend to think that his younger contemporary
Charpentier was a greater dramatist, but here Lully demonstrates
that he knows how to create a musical drama. And this performance
makes that abundantly clear. The recording quality is excellent,
and the booklet not only contains the full text of the libretto,
with an English translation, but also a synopsis, interesting
programme notes - as referred to above - and equally interesting "Notes
on the Dances in Lully's Operas" by Rebecca Harris-Warrick.
The only regret - and it is something I don't understand – is
the modern pronunciation of the French text. But this can't
hold me back from strongly recommending this splendid production.
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