Jean-Baptiste Lully – Alceste
CAST: Alceste / La Gloire: Judith Van Wanroij; Alcide: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Admète / 2e Triton: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; Céphise / Nymphe des Tuileries / Proserpine: Ambroisine Bré; Lycomède / Charon: Douglas Williams; Cléante / Straton / Pluton / Éole: Étienne Bazola; Nymphe de la Marne / Thétis / Diane: Bénédicte Tauran; Nymphe de la Seine / Une Nymphe / Femme affligée / Une Ombre: Lucía Martín Cartón; Lychas / Phérès / Alecton / Apollon / 1er Triton / Suivant de Pluton: Enguerrand de Hys
Chœur de Chambre de Namur
Leonardo García-Alarcón and Thibaut Lenaerts, chorus masters
Les Talens Lyrique
Christophe Rousset, conductor
Alceste: Origin of an Work
Mythology was one of the favourite sources of Baroque composers and Jean-Baptiste Lully was no exception. After the success of his first tragédie en musique, Cadmus et Hermione (after Ovid’s Metamorphosis, 1673), he chose for his next subject Euripides’s tragedy Alceste. As for the previous tragédie, the libretto was written by dramatist and poet Philippe Quinault, Racine’s direct rival.
Alceste premiered in January 1674, but not under the best auspices. As it often happens, the bad reception was due to a cabal and not to music itself. In the last year and especially after Molière’s death (Lully worked for a long time with him, as you can read in our review of Molière à l’Opéra), Lully was granted the privilege to use the Théâtre du Palais Royal for free. As a consequence of this privilege, the Italian company had to leave the theatre which they previously shared with him. Moreover, Lully prohibited the company from using dancers and more than two voices and six violins in their productions.
The production of Alceste was therefore surrounded by criticism. King Louis XIV had to produce the tragèdie en musique at court to avoid further discontent.
Looking closely, Alceste is rather a tragicomedy than a tragédie. It blends serious and comic elements, as the repeated notes which suggested the barking of Cerberus. This mix was characteristic of Lully’s and Quinault’s early works, while the librettos written since 1677 onwards are more regular in character.
Alceste: the Performance
There was at least one significant recording of Lully’s Alceste before the present one, made in 2017 by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques. It was the one featuring Jean-Philippe Lafont, Colette Alliot-Lugaz and Veronique Géns under Jean-Claude Malgloire’s conduction. The most recent recording is noteworthy too and it is not inferior to the previous one.
As in every recording conducted by Rousset (I remember by the way Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres), Alceste too is a gem of Baroque music. Lully’s music is sumptuously and lavishly performed. All the colours and nuances are of the most subtle and brilliant quality. Extreme precision and skill heighten the elegance and, at the same time, the splendour of this lush melodies in a way which is prompt and splendid. In this regard, the ensemble of Les Talens Lyriques is admirable for its shimmering colours and refined playing.
As for the chorus, it has a considerable weight in Alceste. In the present case, the Chœur de Chambre de Namur is as amazing as the orchestra. Its singers have voices as fine and beautiful as those of the soloists. Among them, the finest voices are those of Judith Van Wanroij (who sings the title role and La Gloire in the Prologue) with her expressive and flexible voice, Étienne Bazola, remarkable for his smoothness and his bright timbre, and Edwin Crossley-Mercer with his elegant phrasing and lustrous tone. However, all the singers are remarkable and I would like to remember at least Lucía Martín Cartón for her vocal clarity and theatrical command, Ambroisine Bré for her vocal and dramatic commitment and Douglas Williams for his velvety and rich voice.
This recording of Alceste is therefore of excellent quality. All its elements are at their best and they offer a refined and highly skilled performance that shed lustre on this Baroque gem.