This Glossa release is something of a triumph. Although a following has developed for Lully's operas in the past 25 years or so, they still don't get the general recognition that they deserve. Hervé Niquet holds a special place in their revival and greater appreciation: in 1987 he was a singer in William Christie's performance of Atys. In the same year, though, he also founded Le Concert Spirituel, which we hear to such good effect on this double CD (literally – two separate jewel cases in the cardboard sleeve, which also contains an excellent booklet with essays and full text etc.) from Glossa.
For only the sixth time since 1680 Proserpine was performed in 2006. Twice: in Paris and at Versailles. This set is more than just a record of these occasions. It stands in its own right as a highly stimulating and enjoyable presentation of a work that has never been considered one of Lully's prime operas. Yet still deserves close attention.
One of several collaborations between Lully and his librettist Quinault, Proserpine also marks the start of Lully's changes in style which we associate with his use of Quinault's verse. Written only seven years before Lully died, the opera is full of rich, confident and forward-moving harmonies and melodies. The dramatic tension (essentially concerning the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto and the "compromise" by which she eventually is to spend half of each year above and half below the earth, with Ceres and Pluto in turn) is sharper. The sense that Proserpine is a music drama as much as a series of numbers is correspondingly greater. This is in part due to the fact that heroism is not so important in Lully's conception as is love. The drama works because of the multiplicity of lovers – would-be and actual all co-involved… Ceres, Jupiter, Pluto, Alpheus, Arethusa as well as Proserpina. Further, by revealing the main character in context, so to speak, and as someone whose concerns we can relate to in the first part of the work, librettist and composer overlay the myth with human interest. The way that the secondary characters mirror and supplement the main ones also adds to the impact made by the unfolding plot.
The metaphorical devices of having heaven, earth and hell (as well as Peace and Victory) participate in the action – and in action filled with spectacle as befitted the priorities and conventions of Louis XIV's world – also make Proserpine an exciting and enduring experience. It might seem that a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, caves turning into courtyards and journeys to the underworld are "mere" spectacle superfluous to the plot. In fact they all serve to re-inforce, to strengthen, explain even, the tensions and lines of emotion between the main characters.
So it's also important that singers understand and enter into the spirit of the idiom as much as possible for the opera to succeed in its own terms. On this recording indeed they do. The orchestral playing is brisk yet sensitive. Tight yet fluent. The chorus provides ample support for the principals, who are excellent without exception. Salomé Haller's (soprano) Proserpina and Joao Fernandes' (bass) Pluto deserve special mention for the delicacy and strength of their interpretations. But there is an evenly vigorous yet sensitive cast supporting them with some superb moments, such as "Vaine Fierté, foible Rigueur" [CD.1 tr.17] or "Amants qui n'êtes point jaloux" [CD.1 tr.26].
This rendering of more tender emotions is typical of the tone, new for Lully, which Proserpine exhibits: music – expansive, highly textured, energetic, dynamic and above all melodious music – is foremost. As if the events, which are somewhat slighter than in other of Lully's operas for all their dramatic force, are themselves a reason to play and sing. There is certainly as much joy as there is pathos in Proserpine. The performers are fully aware of this order of things and present a joyful yet sensitive account. Nothing is superficial. Yet there is a lightness of touch in all orchestral and vocal departments that carries the momentum of the work forward while supporting just the right amount of reflection and commentary on the topic's main themes… loss against one's will (Proserpina's abduction), accommodation of such loss (the division of her time in the compromise), and the implications of freedom. To this end, the singers have clearly entered into the characterization of their roles such that the tensions and resolutions are important to us. Proserpine is not a masque in Niquet's production.
The recording was made at the Opéra Royal of Versailles, or at least the Tragédie itself was – in 2006: the Prologue over a year later at the Théâtre de Poissy. Both acoustics are full and helpful to conveying both the subtleties and the weight of the work. The booklet that comes with Proserpine has the full text in French, English and Spanish with a short but apposite introductory essay, though nothing concerning the musicians, which would have been useful given that they're not all household names. Be prepared for something a little odd, and ill-judged, really: the final track of the first CD fades out rather than coming to a conventional stop. It's not because the number continues on the second CD. It just fades out towards (one hopes) the end of the ritournelle.
If you already enjoy Lully's fine operatic output, you'll want to snap this straight up: it's the only recording of the work available. If not, then you'd be coming to a somewhat special corner of his work. If it's precise, colorful and expressive singing and playing under a director whose expertise is second to none that you want, then you'll find it in this set.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey