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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
L'amour medicin (1665) [10:37]
Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée (1664) [7:37]
Georges Dandin: Le grand divertissement royal de Versailles (1668) [13:07]
Monsieur de Pourseaugnac: le divertissement de Chambord (1669) [3:54]
Pastoral comique (1657) [5:57]
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) [12:40]
Les Amants magnifiques (1670) [20:01]
Phaëton (1678) [73:49]
see end for review for soloists
Ensemble Vocal Sagittarius
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
rec. Studio 103, Radio France, 1987, 1993 (Phaeton)
WARNER APEX 2564 62184-2 [74:11 + 73:49]

These are fine performances, but corner-cutting militates against their finding an audience.
 
Students of music history are familiar with the French Baroque form of the opéra-ballet, combining singing, dance, and pageantry. These comédies-ballets represent an earlier stage form, dating from the young Lully's collaborations with Molière. They emphasize comedy, of the ha-ha rather than the classical kind.
 
In the scene from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, both the lower-voiced soloist and his responding trio affect a "character" style; the men's inflections in the divertissement from George Dandin are positively hammy. The comic bass-or-baritone - I'll get to that - in Monsieur de Pourseaugnac is recognizably an ancestor of the nineteenth-century buffo. The answering tenor squawks his way through patter that invades counter-tenor territory. Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée takes in various snores and yawns, along with a fair amount of declamation; it's practically vaudeville.
 
So, while the music is beautiful and well-wrought, these are pieces meant to be played for theatrical values rather than purely musical ones, and so they are presented here. This is where the cost-cutting comes into play: Warner's skimpy booklet includes no texts at all. To follow the action requires better French comprehension than my reasonable but rusty skills permit. Yet - save in the restrained Les Amants magnifiques, with its vivid colours and the unearthly beauty of its male ensemble - you can't just "listen for pleasure": the extra-musical noises and hoked-up delivery keep getting in the way. In the Pastoral comique, I wanted to revel in the strings' almost plush sonority, but the madrigalesque "comic" singing kept coming as a jolt.
 
The producers might at least have identified who sings in which piece. I can only tell you that the soprano in L'amour medicin allows herself a pleasing amount of vibrato, while that in Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée, whose low range is warm and caressing, pushes the straight tones rather fiercely as she ascends. The men all sound good when they're not busy "acting".
 
You could listen to the opera Phaëton for sheer pleasure - in fact, you'd pretty much have to, as we're given no libretto - as the music is gorgeous. Curiously, at the end of a few numbers, another dance or recitative begins and is almost immediately faded out. Is this an artful attempt to elide parts of Lully's score - the notes are unforthcoming - or merely a theatrical effect cooked up by conductor Minkowski? Otherwise, the performance is unencumbered by extraneous distractions.
 
The orchestral playing is lively and alert, with earthier, less posh-sounding tuttis than on the other disc; the strings achieve great delicacy in the lighter textures. The soloists are excellent and responsive, but, again, we're not told which characters are singing on each track, which would offer a fighting chance at sorting them out. In track 11 of Phaëton, the lower of the duetting sopranos, stuck in a weaker part of her range, doesn't quite balance the higher one. The give-and-take in track 16 commands attention, though the soprano takes the vehemence almost over the top. The chorus sings with beautiful blend and transparency and with splendid rhythmic address in the homophonic passages, as in track 29.
 
The choice is yours. The economic constraints presumed necessary for this mid-priced reissue have rendered it virtually unmarketable to the general public. Given the quality of the performances, however, this is probably a must for scholars and enthusiasts.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

List of performers
Phaeton
Howard Crook - Phaëton
Rachel Yakar - Clymène
Jennifer Smith - Théone
Véronique Gens - Libye
Gérard Théruel - Epaphus
Philippe Huttenlocher - Mérops
Jean-Paul Fouchecourt - Triton, Le Soleil, La Déesse de la Terre
Laurent Naouri - Saturne, Protée
Virginie Pochon - Astrée, Une Heure du jour
Jérôme Varnier - L'Automne, Jupiter
Florence Couderc - Une Bergère, Une Heure du jour

Other works
Isabelle Poulenard, Agnès Mellon (sopranos)
Gilles Ragon, Michel Laplénie (tenors)
Michel Verschaeve (baritone)
Bernard Delétré, Philippe Cantor (basses)


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