Although the operas of the father of French Baroque opera, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 -- 1687), were for long periods rarely performed, they have been experiencing a well-merited revival. The Boston Early Music Festival deserves a great deal of praise for the interest in Lully. It is a period instrument ensemble which has now produced two outstanding CDs of rare Lully. In odd-numbered years, the group conducts a festival early in June. (The 2009 festival, unfortunately, just ended.) In 2005, the group performed Lully's Thesee at the festival and released a CD of the performance in 2007 to wide acclaim. In 2007, the Boston Early Music Festival performed Lully's even rarer opera Psyche, and released this CD of the opera in 2008. As far as I can tell, this is the first complete recorded version of the opera. A mixture of spectacle, drama, and ballet, Psyche is unified by Lully's music. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs direct the performance.
The comprehensive booklet which accompanies this CD includes a timeline which gives much information about Lully. Lully was born in Florence but moved to France in 1645. In 1653, he became attached to the young Louis XIV and became music master to the royal family in 1662. From 1663-1671, Lully worked with the great French dramatist Moliere. But he became most famous for his series of tragedie lyriques that he wrote from 1673 -- 1686 in collaboration with his librettist, Phillipe Quinault.
The theme of Psyche is the centrality of love to life -- a theme which is broader than the philandering of Louis XIV which precipitated the score. Psyche has a complex history. It was originally written in 1671 as a ballet in collaboration with Moliere. The opera dates from 1678 to a libretto by Thomas Corneille. Lully used his 1671 score and also used textual material that Quinault had written.
The opera's two major characters are Psyche, sung by soprano Carol Sampson and Venus, sung by soprano Karen Gauvin. The story is about Venus's jealousy of the beauty of Psyche, a mortal woman. As a result of her jealousy, Venus tries to have Psyche killed by a large serpent, but Psyche is rescued by Amor (Cupid), Venus's son. This exacerbates her jealousy, as Venus tries to end the romance by tricking Psyche into seeing the shape of Amor as a god -- something forbidden to mortals. Venus then sends Psyche to Hades. Act IV of the opera takes place in Hades in a scene that has similarities to Orpheo and many other early operas. Finally, Jupiter intervenes and assuages the anger of Venus by making Psyche immortal. This allows the marriage between Amor and Psyche to proceed. The finale of the opera, to Quinault's text, is a long elaborate wedding scene, in which Mars, Baccus, and Mome(the god of satire) sing of the power of love.
The opera is a spectacle with many elaborate scene changes and effects -- it includes the destruction of a palace, a scene in Hades with demons and terrors, and a scene with the gods on Olympus. As with all French Baroque opera it is also full of dances. The ballets and the effects must be left to the imagination while enjoying this music. French baroque opera is much more oriented to the written text than the Italian opera of the day. In addition, the French baroque tends not to include either flamboyant arias and vocal displays or long sections of recitivs. The line between aria and recitive tends not to be sharply drawn. The music is elegant, carefully ornamented, and strongly rhythmical, with a distinctly French pattern known as notes inegales.
Psyche begins with a Prologue written to set the stage and to flatter the king and it is followed by five acts. The musical highlights include the long finale, the stylized but angry signing of Venus, and the innocent voice of Psyche. Soprano Yulia Van Doren sings an almost show-stopping aria in the Prologue titled "Flora's minuet." There is a lovely melancholy piece for three recorders titled "Italian Lament" and much elaborate dance music and royal fanfare. Many of the vocal solos are accompanied by an instrument called a theorbo, a large lute-like instrument, or by a baroque guitar. Much of the emotion of the opera is carried by the dance. By operatic standards the singing is restrained but still carries feeling.
The booklet accompanying the CD includes the full text and translation, extensive and useful essays of the opera and its background, photographs of the 2007 live production, and the timeline of Lully's life that I mentioned earlier. This is an essential recording for those who love the French Baroque.