LULLY Proserpine • Hervé Niquet, cond; Salomé Haller (Proserpine); Bénédicte Tauran (La Paix); Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Cérès); Blandine Staskiewicz (Aréthuse/Cyané); Hjördis Thébault (La Victoire); Cyril Auvity (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Alphée); François-Nicolas Geslot (Mercure); Marc Labonnette (Jupiter/Crinise); Pierre-Yves Pruvot (La Discorde); João Fernandes (Pluton); Le Concert Spirituel • GLOSSA 921615 (2 CDs: 152: 16 Text and Translation)
According to the unhelpful liner notes to this set, Niquet decided to make his entry into audio recordings of Lully’s operas with Proserpine because it is a “sleeping beauty.” We never find out exactly why, and its choice is to my mind an odd one. A 1680 setting of the Persephone religious tale that has come to us first from Greece and then from Rome, Quinault, Lully’s usual librettist, tried to pad the story across five lengthy acts, adding events and effects that were not in the original—such as Mercury’s appearance, infernal spirits attempting to convince Proserpine to cease rejecting Pluto, the destruction Ceres orders her followers to bring to earth following her daughter’s abduction, etc. He also created new secondary characters in a nymph attendant upon Ceres, Aréthuse, and her would-be lover, Alphée. They, too, halt the plot rather than contributing to it, and supply no interest such as the down-to-earth servants in Molière’s comedies regularly did.
But wait, the liner notes suggest: this doesn’t take into account the fantastic spectacle and dance that were essential aspects of this opera, as much as its book or music. I have no doubt that this is true. The problem is that while the spectacle and dance may look great when seen in an authentic stage adaptation or its DVD equivalent, the visuals are of somewhat less value on an audio CD. We must judge solely on what we hear, and while certainly pleasant, I find that Proserpine wears over time. Lully was an expert in the accompanied recitative that developed and expressed tragic situations, moving easily and with rare eloquence between formal speech patterns, airs, and arias. The largely non-tragic, static Proserpine gave little chance for him to shine at what he did best, while emphasizing orchestral color and imagination, qualities he seldom displayed in abundance.
This isn’t to say that Prosepine is without those moments that stand out in any Lully score. Aréthuse’s complaint, “Vaine Fierté, foible Rigueur,” is a charming thing, and the air of Alpheus, “Amants qui n’êtes point jaloux,” is in Lully’s best heightened recitative style. Act III, scene 7, in which Ceres discovers her daughter’s abduction and laments over a sympathetic chorus, is a vocal rondo in form and a fine piece of work, pointing the way to some of the great tragic utterances in Lully’s remaining operas. But the music for the special effects and the various dances spread throughout this opera are energetic rather than interesting, and the sum is definitely less than the parts.
If anyone can make a case for this work, however, it is Niquet. The energy, precision, and rhythmic subtlety he has brought to a number of other recordings of French Baroque operatic and sacred music is fully in evidence. His cast in general is both familiar from his previous albums and very good, though I have a few reservations. Most of these concern d’Oustrac as Ceres. She certainly understands the drama within the words and reflects it well, but is sloppy about intonation, and careless in her enunciation of the text. Far better in this regard is Auvity in the secondary part of Alphée, while the juxtaposition of Staskiewicz to d’Oustrac in a couple of scenes demonstrates all too well what the latter is missing in focus. Haller possesses an attractive voice and good divisions, but is sketchy at times in details. Her breathing doesn’t always support the voice as it should, even in relatively short passages.
Fernandes as Pluton is good, with all the resonant bass one could ask for in the part, if not with the flexibility necessary to sing the small bit of coloratura it possesses. Labonnette’s slightly brassier, more baritonal bass is suitably majestic as Jupiter, while Geslot is satisfactory as Mercury, despite a degree of tremulousness that enters his tone in the part’s upper reaches. In the prologue devoted to Victory freeing Peace from Discord (through martial exploits; an unintentional note of irony), Tauran displays perhaps the best combination of attractive tone and dramatic insight in the cast. Pruvot’s tone, in turn, quivers too much to make his Discord musically successful, while Thébault makes a pleasant sound and characterizes well, but keeps too many words caught in her mouth. The forces of Le Concert Spirituel are, as ever, top notch, with especial praise going to the chorus for its excellent command of dynamics and phrasing.
The sound is well balanced, far better than in the recording of Sémélé by Marais that Niquet undertook recently (Glossa 921614). Singers have more presence, and stand out sufficiently from the orchestra. In turn, the orchestral parts are clear enough to spotlight the fine tone of Le Concert Spirituel’s individual instrumentalists, who clearly intend to sound as appealing to the ear as their version of authenticity permits.
In short, even if you agree with me that Proserpine is not up to the standards of several other Lully operas, this recording makes as good a case for the work as one could expect. So consider this a recommendation—unless you haven’t tried any Lully operas before, in which case, his Psyché (cpo 777367) by the Boston Early Music Festival and especially Niquet’s stylish DVD of Persée are excellent places to start.
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