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Lully’s Psyché by the Boston Early Music Festival, 2007, now on CD

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Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyché, Boston Early Music Festival
Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyché, Boston Early Music Festival

Psyché (1678), tragédie, by Thomas Corneille called de Lisle (1625 – 1709), Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657 – 1757, music by Jean-Baptiste Lully dit Baptiste (1632 – 1687), based on the tragédie-ballet by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin called Molière (1622 – 1673), Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684), and Philippe Quinault (1635 – 1688), music by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Below you will find my review of the Boston Early Music Festival’s magnificent performance of Lully’s Psyché on June 24, 2007 at the Mahaiwe Arts Center in Great Barrington. As the 2009 festival approaches, it seems appropriate to transfer it to our new site with a few remarks about the recording of the performance which was nominated for a Grammy award for best opera. This vivid and colorful recording, made in Jordan Hall, Boston, provides an accurate, clear, and beautifully balanced record of the performance reviewed below. You will hear the splendid singing and original instruments in sparkling presence and full resonance, not to mention the liveliness of the singers interchanges. Bravi tutti!

As I mentioned in my review of Aston Magna’s 35th Anniversary concert, several early events in this summer season are nudging us to think about the nature and the future of the extremely rich cultural scene which has evolved here in the Berkshires, much of it in recent years, but much reaching back into the nineteenth century. As I also pointed out there, Great Barrington became an important center of the early music movement in 1972, when it was in its infancy, and the first North American performances of the Bach Brandenburgs and of Mozart symphonies with period instruments were presented by Aston Magna. The Boston Early Music Festival was founded in 1980, and its biennial festival and exhibition have become a key event in the now flourishing world of early music. The finest groups come from all over the world to perform in Boston, and the audience travels from all over the world to hear them. The BEMF opera performances in particular have become especially prized as just about the best one can find. Like Aston Magna, BEMF have brought performances on tour, including their 2003 production of Johann Georg Conradi’s 1691 opera Ariadne at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, produced, like Psyché, in collaboration with the Berkshire Opera Company. If BEMF is likely to find an audience for an ambitious production of a 17th century opera with period instruments, historically informed singers and dancers, not to mention set design, it is in Great Barrington. The 2003 Ariadne was enthusiastically praised both in Boston and the Berkshires, not to mention New York and other cities whose critics follow such events, but this year’s production of Psyché thrilled an audience far beyond the circle of early music enthusiasts, and it marks a significant step in the progress of the field in our small region and in the world at large. Early music performances will be prominent at Tanglewood this summer, as well as the Norfolk Festival, the Monadnock Festival, not to mention Aston Magna’s lively season. For all these reasons this magnificent production is an important event.

Everything in BEMF’s Psyché was on the highest possible artistic level—singing, orchestral playing, acting, dancing, costumes, set design, “special effects” (that is, the machines which raised, lowered, and transported the divine characters as they entered and exited the stage, thanks to Flying by Foy). They were even largely successful in minimizing the drawbacks of the Mahaiwe’s rather dry acoustics through careful staging and seating of the orchestra. I’ll go into those details later.

What the BEMF company succeeded in achieving was first and foremost the creation of that suspension of disbelief which is the essence of effective theater. I found myself totally absorbed before the first chorus had ended, not only in the opera, but in the culture that created it. The company has recreated not only the music and the stage action, but the mentality from which it came. I was, at least to some degree, experiencing it with the sensibility of Louis XIV’s Parisian audience, if not his court. I was charmed by the artificialities of the acting style and struck with amused wonder at the elegant mechanical flights of the gods. The elaborate costumes, the elaborate melismata in the sung parts and the mannered, but earthy choreography all reflected both the great sophistication and the great naiveté of those times—a more than willing readiness to dissolve into the mythic world Lully and his collaborators conjured up for their king. The spectacle delighted with its succession of impossibilities in a reality which clove the boundary between the divine and the human.

Psyché, however flamboyant its staging, however complex its structure, and however refined its literary and musical elaboration, tells its story directly and economically; and it is basically a simple story, a folk-tale, in fact, which came down to Louis, his artists, and his audience principally in Apuleius’ sophisticated treatment in his Metamorphoses, (1) which nonetheless makes its character as a folk-tale perfectly clear, in fact literally so, as an old wive’s tale. (2) Apuleius, whose attachment to Platonism is well-established, infused the tale with a Platonic message, which was not lost on the authors of the libretto. In fact, it is particularly impressive how neatly they weave it into the crux of the plot—Amor’s (3) command that Psyché not attempt to look at him in his divine form, i.e. while he sleeps—and the psychological tensions which surround Psyché’s fatal curiosity and her ensuing doubt of Love’s love in the key scenes between her and Venus at the mid-point of the work (Act III, scenes ii-v). The ease with which Molière, his team, and their audience could assimilate this quadruply loaded (4) theatrical narrative without any trace of ponderousness is a key element of the spirit in which Psyché was created and enjoyed, which is not surprising in a culture in which mythology, ancient literature, and Platonism were in the air. BEMF’s lively recreation of period acting styles and their attention to content proved effective in making this aspect accessible to the audience. If not every member was conscious of it all the time, all the better. Psyché is all about pleasure, not instruction, although that was the standard to which the classic tragic poets Corneille (5) and Racine were held.

BEMF decided to present Psyché in its most operatic form, the 1678 version, which Lully offered as a tragédie—his own designation (in contradistinction to the Italian opera) for the works he performed in collaboration with librettist Philippe Quinault under the auspices of the Académie royale de musique in Paris as a peculiarly French genre. This was hardly tragedy in the strict sense, but a fusion of continuously sung text, orchestral music, tragédie-ballet, the “machine play,” court ballet, and pastoral. Just about all it had in common with the tragedy of Corneille and Racine was the division into five acts. Subjects were often drawn from mythology and legend. The fantastic or the marvellous played a significant role in plot and spectacle, providing a pretext for elaborate mechanical special effects. Endings were often happy, paving the way for an elaborate dance and celebration before the final curtain. Working with Thomas Corneille and Fontenelle, Lully adapted the work in three weeks from his earlier version, the tragédie-ballet Psyché, produced in 1671 as part of the celebrations of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle—as well as Louis’ mistress, Madame de Montespan. Louis was also eager to put the enormous “Salle des machines,” which had been built in the Tuileries nine years previously for the production of an Italian opera. (The hall seated 7000 and was notorious for its impossible acoustics. After one performance Psyché moved, reduced in scale, to the Palais Royal, which had been revovated at great expense to accomodate the necessary machines.) Moliére won the contract for the production, and, pressed for time, he brought in some of his competitors to complete the libretto, limiting himself to the plot and overall structure. Pierre Corneille wrote the spoken text and Philippe Quinault the sung lyrics. Lully, as Molière’s established collaborator, wrote the musical intermèdes. A great success, the show was repeated many times over the next two years. By 1678, when Lully reworked Psyché, he had broken with Molière (who died the next year), and, as holder of the title to the Académie royale de la musique, was operating in quite a different theatrical climate. In making their adaptation of Psyché, Lully and Th. Corneille cut the text by two-thirds, made changes to the plot, but he retained the very popular prologue, the Italian lament, and the concluding ballet, in which the king and his courtiers participated on the stage of the Palais Royal. The tragédie was well-received, but perhaps less enthusiastically that the original version, which was reprinted and revived even after the 1678 production. Its text, morever, became a literary classic and is printed in the collected works of both Molière and Corneille.

I have sketched all this  out (6) in order to clarify the nature of its multifarious genre, the equal importance of its many facets, and the interrelationship between the numerous collaborators, who of course included the king himself. Lully in fact owed his rise to their common love for and skill at dancing, and the king danced in many of the entertainments produced for him.

For the present production BEMF brought together a host of prominent specialists in historical performance from Europe and North America, most of whom have worked together in Boston before. BEMF artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs (United States) led the project and directed the performance from the continuo section in the pit. Stage director Gilbert Blin (France), who directed the 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée, choreographer Lucy Graham (Great Britain), costume designer and supervisor Anna Watkins (Great Britain), lighting designer Lenore Doxsee (United States); and Boston-based set designer Caleb Wertenbaker (United States) are all old hands at BEMF. The work, however, began even before that. No modern edition of the score exists, and Lully scholar John Powell, who has edited the score of the 1671 tragédie-ballet, was engaged to prepare a performing edition and to research the historical background for other aspects of the production. BEMF Executive Director Kathleen Fay told me that there was a great deal of work done in adapting the production to the Mahaiwe stage, not least in installing the all-important machines. The results of their work were absolutely splendid at the Mahaiwe. If I could search for something to criticize, it would be that the disappearance of Amour’s palace in Act III could have had a little more éclat, and, as the final scene progressed, the stage did become somewhat congested—a complaint also made at the Palais Royal! But these are minor points. All aspects of the production were of a piece, but I found the dances and the stylized gestures and facial expressions especially enjoyable and enlightening, and I found myself wishing that this historical sense were more often found in productions of Moliére’s plays.

The singers were also consistently outstanding in their musical parts, their acting, and their ensemble work. Except for the two principle parts of Vénus and Psyché, sung respectively  by sopranos Karina Gauvin (Canada) and Carolyn Sampson (Great Britain), who both amply lived up to their impressive international reputations for their lovely voices, dramatic eloquence, and knowledge of historical practices, the singers sang multiple roles among the host of characters. Among them were Colin Balzer (Germany), baritone Olivier Laquerre (Canada), mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel (Canada), soprano Amanda Forsythe (United States), tenor Aaron Sheehan (United States), soprano Yulia van Doren (United States), soprano Teresa Wakim (United States), tenor Jason McStoots (United States), baritone Aaron Engebreth (United States), and baritone Matthew Shaw (United States). Among these Yulia van Doren, who is still a student, deserves special praise for her management of the complex ornaments in her part as the Grieving Woman in the Italian lament in Act I, scene ii. With her rounded but limpid voice she brought historical correctness and attention to detail to a higher level of expression, which was ultimately very moving. Both Gauvin and Sampson maintained a strong control of the stage within their characters, Vénus overbearing, jealous, and angry and Psyché pure and generous…and a little naive. Gauvin’s rich but clear soprano brought dignity as well as emotion to her Vénus, and Sampson’s silver tone and stylish agility served Psyché’s vulnerablity most affectingly.

The playing of the BEMF Orchestra was thrilling and amazing. Their ensemble was precise and their attacks full of energy, their tone briliant or rich as required by Lully’s music. Strings were lined up facing one another in a long bank extending below the stage with Robert Mealy, leader of dessus de violons, in the center. He in turn was led by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who played theorbo and baroque guitar in the continuo section off to the extreme right, along with Christian Bezuidenhout (who will play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at Tanglewood in August) and Peter Sykes, who played two double-maual Franco-Flemish harpsichords by William Dowd. At the grand conclusion of the work, trumpets and tympani played from the back of the stage, creating an authentic and impressive visual effect, as well as a manageable balance.

I found it especially gratifying that this assembly of brilliant talent and their meticulous preparation exercised a charm over many people who rarely if ever attended early music performances. Through a combination of enthusastic reviews and word of mouth (I witnessed it in action.) it became the hot ticket of that weekend. Like last year’s performance of Schumann’s Genoveva at Bard it left me frustrated that I could  see it only once, and I was far from alone in straining for the next BEMF season two years from now. In what seems to be heating up into a mild flurry of culture wars here in the Berkshires, some might criticize early music as obscenely elitist, almost as bad as old master drawings. It may be a tiresome critical cliché to call a performance “a triumph,” but BEMF’s Psyché, since it opened the doors of early music to  a broader audience and thereby gained some ground, really was one.

BEMF have been issuing CD’s of their opera performances in recent years. There is so much to be learned in all aspects of their approach that I hope that they will think of a video recording of Psyché. It would be a fine thing if the results of their acute research and theatrical flair spread to other forms of performance.

(1) b. Madaurus, Africa, c. 125 AD. The work is also known as the Golden Ass. Recent versions by Maugin and La Fontaine were also in circulation, somewhat bowdlerized, like the Molière-Corneille treatment. It is refreshing to learn that what was fit for a papal bedroom required some delicacy on the Paris stage.

The story of Amor and Psyche was also extremely popular as a subject for fresco decorations, particularly following Raphael’s famous cycle in the Vatican Loggie, most notably those of his pupils Giulio Romano in the Palazzo de Tè in Mantua, Perino del Vaga in Pope Paul III’s bedroom in Castel S. Angelo, and the Raphaelesque “graphic novel” of the Master of the Die. Louis most certainly knew many of these, since drawings by Raphael, Giulio, Perino and others entered his collection with the group purchsed from his banker Everard Jabach in 1671. The subject was also immensely popular among French artists before during and after his reign. See our gallery exhibition under Fine Arts.

(2) “But I shall distract you right now with delicate stories and an old woman’s tales.”  It even begins with the classic formula of the folk-tale: “There were in a certain city a king and queen.” – Ap. Met. IV.xxvii-xxviii.

(3) In the BEMF program notes the son of Venus is consistently called “L’Amour” in order to clarify the multiplicity of meanings it carried for the Louis and his contemporaries as a proper and a common noun.

(4) Platonism, dramatic psychology, music, and spectacle, not to mention Louis’ relatioship with Madame de Montespan, which by 1678 had become rather complex. See Stephen Stubbs’ essay “Psyché: The story of a spectacle and a royal mistress (A personal interpretation).”

(5) This is the same dramatist who wrote the libretto for the 1671 Psyché. From his Le Cid and its Querelle, we know that he was inclined to chafe against the purist bit, and we must not forget that he wrote in a variety of different genres, even comedy.

(6) for a more detailed account see John Powell’s excellent essay on the BEM site, and more of the catalogue essays here.

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