December 11, 2013 5:37 pm

Psyché, Comédie-Française, Paris – review

Véronique Vella’s version of Molière’s 1671 play is updated, shortened – and delectable
From left, Pierre Hancisse, Françoise Gillard and Félicien Juttner in 'Psyché'©Brigitte Enguérand

From left, Pierre Hancisse, Françoise Gillard and Félicien Juttner in 'Psyché'

Psyche has fared better in literature, painting and sculpture than on the stage. A number of plays, operas and ballets have used the mythological heroine whose beauty incurs the jealousy of Venus as inspiration, but none has become a repertoire mainstay – and that includes Molière’s 1671 play, a five-hour extravaganza commissioned by Louis XIV.

His Psyché hasn’t been performed in full at the Comédie-Française since the 19th century, probably with good reason: originally billed as a tragi-comédie-ballet, it featured an extensive Lully score and ballet divertissements in addition to verse written with the help of Corneille, and was reputedly impossible to stage. We have Véronique Vella, a company member of 25 years’ standing, to thank for unearthing it this season – with delectable results.

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Her first production for the Salle Richelieu updates Psyché without losing its fantasy elements. Wisely, she has chosen to pare back the text to a reasonable two hours, impeccably paced on stage. The decision not to use any of Lully’s music may be more controversial, but Vincent Leterme contributes a playful new score, full of riffs on Molière’s lines, that blends opera influences and show tunes (though not always well sung by a cast and chorus of student actors).

Psyché makes full use of the Comédie-Française’s resources, with a team composed almost solely of in-house talent. The costumes are elaborate and whimsical, and the sets, arranged around a large turntable, are beautifully judged, with a colourful painting of Venus once we reach Olympus and a silky curtain in shades of orange to enclose Psyche in her prison near the end.

The abrupt transitions between comedy and tragedy are handled without a hitch, and Vella directs her colleagues with solid intuition. The classically beautiful Jennifer Decker is cast against type as one of Psyche’s envious sisters, but the double act she forms with Coraly Zahonero provides hilarious comic relief throughout: their clumsy tap-dancing number is a witty nod to the play’s original dance content. Françoise Gillard, meanwhile, is a diminutive Psyche with short, dishevelled hair, as charismatic as she is modern, and the spark between her and Benjamin Jungers – a slightly awkward Cupid – is refreshingly believable.

As a result, one of the best surprises is the resonance of their love story. They fall for each other with childlike innocence, then enter adulthood together. Several scenes are as much dance as theatre, and Cupid’s desperate attempts to revive her near the end are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. His rebellion against his mother also rings true opposite Sylvia Bergé, by far the best singer in the cast and superb as the ageing Venus, who will go to any lengths to restore her supremacy.

Psyché’s dysfunctional families are certainly the equal of those in more familiar myths – and this production too matches up to the best of the Comédie-Française’s repertoire.


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