Lully: Thésée

COMPOSERS: Lully
LABELS: CPO
ALBUM TITLE: Lully
WORKS: Thésée
PERFORMER: Howard Crook, Laura Pudwell, Ellen Hargis, Harry van der Kamp, Suzie LeBlanc, Mireille Lebel, Amanda Forsythe, Olivier Laquerre, Marek Rzepka; Boston Early Music Festival Chorus & Orchestra/Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs
CATALOGUE NO: 777 240-2
An exemplary production. Start with the booklet’s learned but readable essays: these brilliantly set the political scene for Lully’s and librettist Quinault’s invention of the operatic tragédie, which dominated the French stage for a century after Thésée (1675). But tantalising photos and a note on the invisible (to us) dances also make it clear just how much we’re missing in this 2006 remake of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2001 production, however excellent (and it is). These days, DVD, surely, is the best home for this proto-Wagnerian vision.

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On CD, the music alone must sweeten Quinault’s pill of sycophancy plus cliché: his Prologue, set in a Versailles soon to become a building site, drags; the plot’s nth love intrigue is harder to swallow for being unnecessary and unresolved; and did the King’s courtiers really believe that love, not Louis, conquered all? Lully’s music, mostly short recits and airs, is rhythmically inventive but rarely as memorable as Purcell’s or as colourful as his own, earlier collaborations with Molière, though the set pieces, starring denizens of Hell and Athenian OAPs, do divert.The playing is uniformly superb, the singing less so: as mad, bad Médée, Laura Pudwell steals the show from Ellen Hargis, vocally unappealing as Aeglé, love-interest of Thésée, stylishly sung by Howard Crook. The large but nimble chorus sings in 17th-century French, the soloists in today’s. The Radio Bremen recording captures the impossibly varied settings as well as can be expected. A heroic effort – but we need those pictures. Nick Morgan