Here's another highly desirable and recommendable offering from the biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF, established in 1980). Working in the context of what is now well respected as probably north America's leading festival of its kind, director Gilbet Blin directed Lully's Thésée in June 2001. Not until 2006, though, did the ever enterprising CPO conduct five days of recording in Bremen of the same production. It marks the second of BEMF's Baroque opera recording series; the same composer's Psyché (CPO 777367-2) has been equally warmly received.
Thésée is rooted in the life of the court at Versailles, where it was first performed in 1675. Allegorical and celebratory of Louis XIV's wars it deals with the intrigues of another court – in classical Athens. Central to these are the themes of love, jealousy, revenge, heroism, wisdom and discretion of Medée and Thésée and those with whom they are involved. Although tragic in outcome, there are almost Shakespearean elements in the way Lully and his librettist, Quinault, explored lessons for life in resolving difficult and tortured relationships. It was important for Lully's music to be totally sensitive to the resulting nuances. And for the singers and performers in this production to respect and bring them out. They have done so.
Thésée is important for other reasons: it can be considered the work in which Lully and Quinault perfected that magical mix known as Tragédie en musique, later Tragédie lyrique, which was to last for a century and take French and German musical theatre to the Enlightenment. Ultimately their conception of Tragedy descended from the Greek: in this case it used Divertissements (derived here from the Ballet do Cour); they comment on the major dramatic events which have just occurred.
The subject matter was almost certainly "suggested" by the king himself; Thésée's opening scene is set in the gardens of Versailles. Notably, that was not yet Louis XIV's court: it was still being built. But the parallels between the story of Thésée and events in the king's own life and with his entourage are acute, if not always overt. To be charitable, we might see Thésée as a warning against the dangers of civil war; alternatively as an exhortation on Louis' part not to consider any kind of rebellion. More intimately, Theseus was the "unknown" son of the king of Athens, the Duc de Maine the illegitimate son of Louis and his mistress, Mme. de MontespanÉ in the opera she (as Venus) is abandoned for Minerva (Mme. de Maintenon).
It has been amongst the challenges of this production to extract more immediately relevant musical and dramatic, not to mention poetic, themes and concerns for modern audiences unaware of the particularities of the late seventeenth century aristocracy, however grand and accomplished its grandest patron was. This they have done most successfully by stepping back from the music and emphasizing its dignity, energy and sheer beauty. There is, for example, a pace to the progression between solo, duet, choral, dance and orchestral numbers on the one hand; and declamatory, reflective, rhetorical and ones revelatory of character and dilemma or resolution on the other.
Such changes in pace are all used to good effect in this recording and move us on, keeping our interest, when the references or implied allegories would pass us by. The succession of tests to which Aegle (she loves Theseus) is submitted serves a similar purpose. But for every bit that these are affects, devices, dramatic ploys, it's in the quieter, less spectacular moments and scenes that Lully (and Quinault) succeed without the "net" of boisterous battle music or similar set pieces.
It's through dialog and music that is, frankly, consciously self-revelatory that we perhaps best relate to the underlying themes of stepping back from rash actions driven by jealousy, and attempts to attain the impossible. For this a close adherence to the text, and its relationship to the music, is necessary. That's precisely what these singers bring to this recording. Expressive without being heavily didactic, characterful without caricature (often difficult in the face of Medea's excesses) and underplayed in order to point up the poignancy – for example of the manipulation in Act 4 of Aegle by Medea.
Above the other principals (Howard Crook, Thésée; Van der Kamp, Æglée and Laura Pudwell, Medée stand out) in receipt of particular praise have to come Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs for their conducting, continuo and theorbo playing – above all, for the drive and structural insight. This would have been a different recording without them both.
So this is a three-CD set that lacks little or nothing. Chiefly, it brings a superb performance of the under-rated Thésée to anyone even remotely curious about the idiom of this genre. There is no other recording in the catalog. The acoustic is excellent, the notes are useful; and there is the full libretto in French, English and German. There is more than a historical interest, though to Lully's Thésée. This is music which carries itself. Yes, the conventions are to us somewhat stilted at times. But it's the skill and perception of the BEMF team that have made this set unequivocally one to acquire and enjoy in its own right. We have a lot to learn from Lully's humanity and perception. This recording goes a long way to help us. Don't hesitate.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey