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Perruche, Druet, Arquez, Thomas; Gonzalez Toro, Auvity, Foster-Williams, Caton, Arnould; Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Les Talens Lyriques, Rousset. Aparté AP061 (2)
Lucky Louis XIV, with his brand-new palace at Versailles and a royal court eager to celebrate him with song and dance! Under his inspired, magnanimous guidance, France was entering a new âge d'or,and if anyone failed to see that, well, here were Philippe Quinault and Jean-Baptiste Lully with Phaéton, their latest tragédie lyrique,with Saturn extolling in its prologue "a hero, who deserves everlasting glory … from [whose] sublimity it pleases him to descend" to be fêted by the muses. First presented at Versailles in January 1683, Phaéton traveled in April to the Académie Royale de Musique, where a wider audience could bask in the Sun King's radiance.
That Phaéton,aside from its grand royal hommage, would also be a cautionary tale about pride and ambition was clear to any reader of Ovid, whose Metamorphoses supplied the central drama of Quinault's libretto: Phaéton seeks reassurance from his mother, Clymène, that his father is indeed the Sun. In his heavenly palace, the god happily greets his offspring and swears an oath to grant him anything he wants as a token of paternal love. Phaéton asks to drive the Sun's fiery chariot, and his horrified father is honor-bound to oblige. Predictably, Phaéton loses control; and the imperiled Earth is saved only by Jupiter's timely intervention. Since Ovid's tale significantly lacks a love interest, Quinault introduced two: Phaéton loves Théone, but in his pursuit of power he courts Libye, who loves (and is loved by) Jupiter's son Epaphus. It's Epaphus's taunts that launch Phaéton on his fatal course.
Lully devised for his new opera a typically lavish assemblage of airs, dances, choruses and ensembles — and, of course, the recitatives that propel the action. They're all handsomely served on this new recording, captured live in concert at Paris's Salle Pleyel in October 2012, with Christophe Rousset leading his splendid band, Les Talens Lyriques, with his typical crisp authority. If you've heard and enjoyed their recent recording of another Lully opera, Bellérophon, you'll know what pleasures to expect. But while that set was the work's CD premiere and one of a kind, this new one faces serious competition from a twenty-year-old Phaéton on Erato, which strikes my ears as even more vividly rendered. Take, for example, the fourth-act encounter of father and son: Rousset's pair, Cyril Auvity and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, sing with skill and eloquence but are timbrally very much alike; Marc Minkowski's Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Howard Crook, better contrasted, make that much more of the scene. And so it goes with the rest of the two casts. Do I find the earlier set's Rachel Yakar, Véronique Gens, Jennifer Smith and Laurent Naouri more compelling than Ingrid Perruche, Gaëlle Arquez, Isabelle Druet and Benoit Arnould? It may be unfair to the fine but largely unfamiliar newcomers, but yes indeed, I do. Still, I can't deny this new Phaéton's merits (among them its spacious, natural sound and stylish presentation), and ears fresher than mine shouldn't be disappointed.
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