Opera: Sumptuous, sly and sleek: a work fit for a Sun King
LULLY'S THeSeE BARBICAN LONDON
Thursday 29 October 1998
While some Stuart musicians, like Dering, learned their seconda prattica - the new Monteverdian "in" techniques - from Italy, and Tomkins held out through the Civil War as a dyed-in-the-wool Elizabethan contrapuntist, it was the greatest of the Parisian composers, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632- 1687), who inspired in the teenage Humfrey not just powder and perruques, but a command of Italianate style second in England only to the latter's future pupil, master Henry Purcell.
The Florentine-born Lully was used to boy prodigies, having twirled on the dance-floor with the 14-year-old Louis XIV, who later granted him a lucrative music-printing monopoly. Lully deserved such indulgence. For no one could pen more pungent ouvertures for the royal violons, compose more affecting motets, or conjure up more dazzling special-effect operas for those stage-struck years of d'Artagnan and Cyrano de Bergerac.
Lully was the Sun King's Mozart. His uncanny ear, sense of proportion, pacing, instrumentation, dramatic contrast and chromatic pathos were unmatched (and who knows what Humfrey, had he not died young, might have cloned for the Carolingian stage?).
It was ballet - culminating in the Lully-Moliere masterpiece Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) - which gobbled up Lully's stage art during his middle years. Thenceforth (to cater for shifts in court taste) tragic-comic and mythical operas flooded from him: Alceste (1674), Thesee (1675), the unutterably beautiful Atys (1676), Isis, Armide, Psyche, Phaethon. It sounds like a dummy run for Handel and Gluck.
Lully's Acis et Galatee has just received an acclaimed new recording from Les Musiciens du Louvre under the masterly Marc Minkowski (DG Archiv 453 497-2). And this week the European Baroque Academy of Ambronay, conducted by the fertile William Christie and displaying all the stunning cultural brilliance of his much-recorded ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, blew in to town, fresh from performances in Lyon, Paris, Brussels and the Theatre de Caen, in Normandy.
A Barbican packed to the gills soaked in this slyly semi-staged reading of the sumptuous Lully-Quinault Thesee (five acts, comme toujours: the Parisian bourgeoisie liked their gold Louis-worth).
Could one fault this show? Only by nit-picking. A single fractionally botched cadence from the magnificently alert rearstage chorus; a single aria ("Arcas", superbly sung by the agreeable young bass Cyrille Gautreau) where the often sensibly hands-off Christie surged away too fast for text and executant alike. Otherwise this was a beautifully groomed performance. Sophie Karthauser's confident Aegle, Andrew Hewitt's enchanting Thesee, and - particularly - Kimberley McCord's sorceress Medee (a Cassandra-cum- Lady Bracknell, who wrecks the party with Purcellian demonry but happily gets her come-uppance) impressed.
One constantly hears Berlioz in Lully, and (in a hilarious scene with two comic vieillards) the direct line leading from medieval chanson to Poulenc. This masterpiece invited wonder, rapture and amazement at three men's genius: Lully; Christie; and the blind theorbo (lute) player, Matthew Wadsworth, whose every pianissimo strum spoke mountains.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food