Notes and Editorial Reviews
Beguiling to my ears are the many dances at which Lully excelled. In short, all this is engaging music, imaginatively performed and thoroughly entertaining. Recorded sound is excellent.
Marc Minkowski now adds the tragedie en musique, Phaeton, to a steadily growing discography of Lully's operas, to which William Christie (Atys, 7/87), Philippe Herreweghe (Armide, 8/93) and Jean-Claude Malgoire (Alceste, 4/93), have also made notable contributions. Phaeton was first produced not at the Palais-Royal Theatre in Paris but modestly at Versailles in January 1683. In the spring of that year it transferred to the Palais-Royal and was well enough thought of to enjoy revivals at regular intervals into the early 1740s. Indeed, rather as Atys became known as the ''King's opera'' and Isis as the musicians', Phaeton acquired its sobriquet, ''the opera of the people''. Among the many attractive airs ''Helas! Une chaine si belle'' (Act 5) was apparently a favourite duet of Parisian audiences, while ''Que mon sort serait doux'' (Act 2), another duet, was highly rated by Lully himself. In 1688 Phaeton was chosen to inaugurate the new Royal Academy of Music at Lyon where, as Jerome de la Gorce remarks in his excellent introduction, it was so successful ''that people came to see it from forty leagues around''. The present recording is a co-production between Erato and Radio France, set up to mark the occasion of the opening of the new Opera House at Lyon.
The libretto is by Lully's regular collaborator, Philippe Quinault, who based his version of the famous legend on the account in Ovid's Metamorphoses. That is, of course, after the customary adulatory Prologue in which a return to the Golden Age is envisaged, with the promise of peace and pleasure. Phaeton is loved by Theone, daughter of the god Protee. But Phaeton is ambitious, with his eye on the Egyptian throne; and the quickest, surest path to that is to marry Libye, daughter of the Egyptian king, Merops. Merops not only offer Libye in marriage to Phaeton but announces his abdication in favour of his proposed son-in-law. But Phaeton has reckoned without the intervention of Epaphus, the disappointed lover of Libya. He questions Phaeton's pedigree obliging Phaeton to pay a visit to the Palace of the Sun so that his father, the Sun God, can declare his legitimacy. That is still not enough for Phaeton who wants to prove his father's identity by driving his chariot. The remainder of the story is indeed, legendary. Phaeton loses control of the Chariot of the Sun and Jupiter, seeing that his lack of horsemanship could set the Earth on fire, strikes him with a thunderbolt. Phaeton plunges to the ground and is killed.
All this afforded composer and librettist ample opportunity for evocative and colourful writing and the score is generously endowed with divertissements, an invigorating overture and a supple swiftly moving chaconne. The casting is effective, by and large, and notably for the stylish, alluring and impassioned singing of Veronique Gens. Hers is one of the finest voices engaged at the moment in French baroque music and she goes from strength to strength. This much is apparent right from the start where her melancholy air, ''Heureuse une ame indifferente'' (''Happy the soul that is indifferent'') strikes an affectingly sombre note. Jennifer Smith is authoritative as the hapless princess Theone; her diction is excellent and her careful placing of notes comparably so. The exchanges with Phaeton are passionately sung, with Howard Crook in the title-role engaging vigorously in the dialogue. Only occasionally, as in her touching Act 2 monologue ''Il me fait, l'inconstant'' is there the slightest hint of vocal strain. Third in this impressive triumvirate of princesses is Rachel Yakar who, as Clymene, Phaeton's mother, is affectionate yet forceful. Her Act 1 air, ''D'une amoureuse ardeur un grand Coeur peut bruler'' (''A mighty heart can burn with amorous ardour''), with its fleeting resemblance to Henry Lawes's ''Sufferance'', is beautifully done with the dual emphasis on heroism and love skilfully balanced.
There are fine contributions from the remaining dramatis personae, too. Jean-Paul Fouchecourt's Triton is crystal clear, with an ease of delivery which I have not always found in some of his earlier recordings; and baritone Laurent Naouri makes a commanding Protee, notably in his revelation of Phaeton's impending fate (Act 1, scene 8). Philippe Huttenlocher brings lively characterization to the ageing King Merops; he is among the most experienced singers in the cast and his declamation is both fluent and stylistically convincing. Gerard Thervel is a new name to me. He takes the baritone role of Epaphus, musically a rewarding one in which he shares the two once celebrated duets, mentioned earlier on, with Libye. His voice blends well in this context though it seemed to me to lack any of the individual character present in several others of the singers.
Last, but in French opera certainly not least, are the choral and instrumental contributions; both make a strong impression, the orchestra especially so with a resonant basso continuo team affording constant pleasure. Minkowski sets a cracking pace for the drama and I detected few if any flagging moments. Readers who feel that one Lully opera is much like another may perhaps be conceded a point or two but I cannot strongly enough emphasize that early appearances are deceptive. Lully's airs are full of charm and variety and, conforming to various types as they do, are far from repetitive. (''Helas! Une chaine si belle'' is a ravishing example.) Likewise, beguiling to my ears, which are eminently susceptible to simple pleasures, are the many dances at which Lully excelled. In addition to the overture and chaconne already mentioned are several other splendid movements including a robust March (Act 3), an Air with a bell illustrating The Hours of the Day at the court of the Sun (Act 4)—this one marvellously enlivened by the presence of a baroque guitar—and a Bourree with two deliciously scored Airs (Act 5). In short, all this is engaging music, imaginatively performed and thoroughly entertaining.
Recorded sound is excellent and the booklet, give or take a few small errors, all that one could wish for. Strongly recommended; the cover illustration alone, one of a group of seventeenth-century wooden panels depicting Phaethon, horses and chariot plunging headlong to earth (coincidentally, I saw the original in Lyon only the day before writing this piece) invites further investigation.
-- Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone [8/1994]