T. C. | 07/22/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Jean-Baptiste Lully is regarded as the founder of French opera. Persée (1682) is one of Lully's greatest works for the stage. The opera concerns Perseus son of Jupiter, his love for Andromeda, and his killing of the snake-headed gorgon Medusa. The music is enchanting, with lots of celebratory choruses and orchestral divertissements.
The production on the new DVD is from a 2004 performance that was recorded live at the Elgin Theatre, Toronto. The production is sheer delight. The settings are beautiful and the costumes are sumptuous. The atmosphere of the rich artistic life at the court of Louis XV is effectively recreated using the décor, costumes and actors movements. The choreography of the dances seems to me as a very successful effort to restore dance movements of the French baroque style. To sum up, it is a feast for the eye.
The conductor is Hervé Niquet. He is doing a great job. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra produces precise and transparent sound on period instruments. The lutes are very prominent, and there are beautiful woodwinds solos (especially oboes). The Tafelmusik chorus is invisible but sings excellently. All the singers are great, with very beautiful voices, idiomatic baroque singing and excellent French.
The opera is called Persee, but Persee has not too much music to sing. It is a pity, because Cyril Auvity (tenor or haute contre) has one of the sweetest voices I have heard lately. One has to mention soprano Monica Whicher that is very moving as the wretched Merope (she loves Persee, but he is in love with Andromède, the excellent Marie Lenormand).
Technical quality is first class. Highly recommended.
Great Art at its Best
Brian J Hay | Sarnia, Ontario Canada | 08/06/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"About five minutes into 'Infortunés, qu'un monstre affreux' mezzo soprano Marie Lenormand sings a line of music that's indescribably beautiful. A moment later Monica Whicher sings the second part of it. Their voices are perfect. The accompaniment is perfect. The next four minutes are rapturous musical bliss. No subtitles are needed. They're meaningless anyway. They don't matter. The sets don't matter. The story doesn't matter. Just the music ...only the ravishingly beautiful music ... this is the type of thing a person gets lost in, the type of thing only the greatest art is capable of. It's pure perfection, something that's worth any amount of searching. It's priceless. Wow!
This production didn't settle in that easily, not at first anyway. Even with some acquaintance with Lully's music the prominence of lutes over strings (violins etc.) and harpsichords made the style of his music feel unfamiliar. For one used to the more rigid forms of opera seria opera buffa the blurring of lines between recitative and full number created another hurdle. The sets, costumes and lighting all seemed to belong to one family of colours. They aren't really. But the predominant (some would say excessive) use of browns and related colours created that impression--at first glance it was like watching something filmed in sepia. Skipping through chapters in search of a highlight probably didn't help either ...
But patience is a virtue. On the second evening the film was started at the beginning and watched properly (at least until the sixteenth chapter but I'll get back to that later). It was worth the effort. After a short period of acclimatization everything meshed. The lack of distinction between song and recitative was serving the drama wonderfully. The use of both lutes and harpsichord for the continuo enriched its tonal colouring with each being used to highlight the other. The singing and acting was all of the highest order. The music was a delight. The set was still a little brown but that was a tiny detail. This production is fabulous. The section (chapter sixteen) mentioned at the beginning of this review stopped me in my tracks. It was watched about five times (give or take a few) before moving on.
There's not enough kind or complimentary words in the English language to do justice to this stellar but (largely) not well known cast. Marie Lenormand has one of the silkiest mezzo soprano voices I've heard in a while. Monica Whicher's voice is radiant and her technique is excellent. Cyril Auvity sings in a soft but powerful tenor with no hint of shrillness that powerful tenors often fall into. Oliver Laquerre and Alain Coulombe have commanding bass voices that never sounds harsh. Mezzo soprano Stephanie Novacek sings in creamy tones marginally lower than those of pure sopranos. Colin Ainsworth is one of the few countertenors (I've heard) who uses his tonal qualities without sounding as if he's singing in a falsetto voice. Vilma Vitols has a flexible mezzo voice capable of immense power and enormous subtlety. Lully's vocal writing stressed subtlety over power and all of these singers shade the nuances in his music beautifully often seeming to glide through the work as opposed to just singing it. The combination is exquisite.
Opera Atelier and Tafelmusik are both familiar names in Canada. And that's as it should be. Tafelmusik has been one of the leading period instrument ensembles for ages and their recordings (usually under the baton of Jeanne Lamon) are invariably excellent. Here they're working under the baton of Hervé Niquet and the result is great. He clearly has an affinity toward this repertoire. Opera Atelier is committed to both performance excellence and introducing young people to the medium of opera. Over the years their productions have been consistently phenomenal. Their revival of this piece (which they did for the first time in 2000) was hailed as the operatic event of the year. It was the first time Persée had been performed since the 18th century.
This is a great production. The staging is largely traditional with the exception being the costumes which (appear to) draw their influences from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries with a touch of modern ballet thrown in. The sets are ornate and reminiscent of the era the music stems from. The sets are spacious and leave plenty of room for the considerable amount of dance used to portray the action sequences. Director Marshall Pynkoski (one of the founders of Opera Atelier) did a great job of pacing the action and keeping the story moving. The orchestral playing is great. The quality of the sound is pristine. And the singing is marvellous. Browns and reds occasionally seem a bit overused but that's a minor complaint about a magnificent production.
It gets the highest rating."
Beautiful! A complete baroque experience
Ingrid Heyn | Melbourne, Australia | 07/24/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I was so charmed by this production that, upon finishing it, I immediately invited a friend around to see it with me on my second viewing. Everything - costume, gesture, facial expressions, voices, exposition of vocal technique, orchestra, dance - was deliciously right in this wonderful Lully opera, and there were many smothered chuckles at the hilarious Medusée (sung by a male who also plays a straight role as the father of Andromodée). Of particular note was the use of that grinning Medusée face on the reverse of Persée's shield.
The standard of singing was very good, and it was especially lovely to see such COMPLETE performances. That is, everyone looked right for their parts, acted appropriately and beautifully, used baroque gesture consistently, and so on. The substitution between the singing Persée and the dancing Persée was so skilfully done that one can scarcely notice it happening. The dancing in general was so superb that it added to the overall charm rather than causing one to sigh and wait longingly for it to be over.
Recommended without hesitation."
Superb performance of near-forgotten masterpiece from 1682
L. E. Cantrell | Vancouver, British Columbia Canada | 03/30/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"SOURCE: Live performance by Opera Atelier from the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, 2004.
SOUND: Perfectly satisfactory for a captured live performance on stage before an audience. I find the solo voices and orchestra are well-balanced with a slight and wholly proper emphasis on the former. (On the other hand, the Good Grey English Magazine, "The Gramophone," complains that the theorbo--a kind of two-necked lute--is given undue prominence. I can't say that I noticed it.) The audience--Canadian, eh?--is well-disciplined and discloses its existence mainly in appropriate applause.
CAST: Persée, Perseus, a heroic son of Zeus - Cyril Auvity (tenor); Andromède, Andromeda, Daughter of Kepheus and Kassiopeia - Marie Lenormand (soprano); Céphée, Kepheus, King of Ethiopia / Medusa, snake-haired but mortal, one of three Gorgon sisters - Olivier Laquerre (bass-baritone); Cassiope, Kassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia - Stephanie Novacek (mezzo-soprano); Phinée, Phineus, brother of Kepheus and jealously in love with Andromeda - Alain Coulombe (bass); Merope, Sister of Kassiopeia and hopelessly in love with Perseus - Monica Whicher (soprano); Mercure, Hermes, divine messenger and trickster god - Colin Ainsworth (tenor); Vénus, Aphrodite, goddess of love - Vilma Vitols (soprano); Vulcan, Hephaistos, divine smith - Unidentified (bass); Minerve, Athena, warrior goddess - Unidentified (soprano); Hades, Aidoneus, god of the underworld - Unidentified (bass); Euryale, immortal Gorgon sister - Michiel Schrey (tenor); Sténone, Stheino, immortal Gorgon sister - Curtis Sullivan (bass).
CONDUCTOR: Hervé Niquet with Tafelmusik and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.
TEXT: With a playing time of only 127 minutes, against the 165 minutes of a rival CD from 2002, this is plainly a heavily cut performing version of Lully's "Persée." I admit to no personal familiarity with this opera beyond what appears on this DVD, but secondary sources suggest that an allegorical prologue has been eliminated in its entirety, along with a scene for Sténone and Euryale and some choral music in the combat scenes in Act V. The opera is sung in 17th Century French with English subtitles.
PRODUCTION: The staging of "Persée," is clearly intended to suggest the late 17th century by the general appearance of costumes and props and the specific use of postures and gestures straight out of baroque paintings and prints. Poor Mercure, for example, is obliged to hold such twisted postures and exaggerated gestures that even the campiest drag queen from my hometown of San Francisco might look askance. Good use is made of some simple painted flats and the boxes on either side of the stage at the Elgin Theatre become effective playing spaces. No attempt, however, has been made to replicate the elaborate, gorgeous and stunningly expensive stagecraft of the 17th Century.
COMMENTARY: The Good Grey Gramophone informs me that "Persée" went unperformed for more than two hundred years until it was revived by Opera Atelier in 2002. Having watched this performance, cut down as it is, I can only wonder why. Opera of this vintage is not and never will be a favorite of mine, but nevertheless, "Persée" is, beyond any doubt whatsoever, a first-rate piece of musical theater.
Giovanni Battista Lulli was born in Florence in 1632. When he was fourteen, he moved to France and promptly became then and forever Jean-Baptiste Lully. In France, he started off as a nobleman's page, rapidly acquiring fame as a dancer, actor and composer. Before he was twenty, he was working for Louis XIV, the Sun King, himself. From there by easy steps, he became head of the king's 21-piece "small" orchestra, then Music Master for the royal family, finally earning a royal monopoly for producing operas in Paris. On top of all that, he was a successful courtier in Louis' hot-house of a royal court. And, oh, yes, he also performed in some of Moliere's works and collaborated with him on a series of ballets--in which he had the innovative notion of including professional female dancers for the first time. He died in 1687 from an infected wound he had accidently given himself while conducting.
Lully wrote about twenty operas, which he called "tragédies en musique," based either on classical subjects, such as "Psyché" (1678), "Proserpine" (1680) and "Persée" (1682) or on such Romance novels and epics as "Amadis de Gaule" (1684), "Roland" (1685) and "Armide" (1686).
"Persée" was an opera written with Louis XIV very much in mind. In fact, the Sun King had suggested the topic to Lulli, as the composer and librettist made exquisitely clear in their obsequious printed dedication of the work to him. By 17th Century standards, it is a pretty faithful adaptation of the story of Perseus as it appears in Ovid, although it stops short with the translation of Perseus, Andromeda, Kepheus and Kassiopeia into the heaven immediately after the triumph over Phineus. The most unexpected and amusing change is the astonishing transformation of the three Gorgon sisters into two basses and a tenor.
The music of this 1682 opera is quite unlike that of the succeeding generations. Lully shifts from recitative into song (not arias as understood by Handel, say) with a casual smoothness that Wagner, himself, might have envied. On the whole the music is straightforward and not excessively decorated. The orchestral texture, with its emphasis on plucked rather than bowed instruments, is a bit odd but still quite pleasant.
The singers are uniformly excellent, almost amazingly so. Frankly, I can't believe that a cast of better singing, better acting, better dancing, better looking performers could be assembled to surpass this one. Even so, there is one stand-out performance, that of Olivier Laquerre, who is an excellent King Kepheus and then, buff and bearded, is an absolute hoot in snake-haired drag as Medusa!
Five golden and bejewelled stars from the Sun King's court? Believe it!"