Opera: Sumptuous, sly and sleek: a work fit for a Sun King


"LITTLE PELHAM Humfrey is lately returned from France, bringing with him all the airs and graces of a proper little Monsieur." Thus (roughly) wrote the columnist (I nearly said calumnist) John Aubrey, pithiest of Stuart diarists, of the brightest button of all English post-Restoration composers.

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.

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