Though inhabited by mythological personages, the operas of Jean- Baptiste Lully are a glittering reflection of the court of Louis XIV. Lully’s librettist Philippe Quinault landed in hot water when some of his characters were identified with court personnel, including the king’s mistress. We tend to see the connection more in the splendour of the dances, choruses and scenic effects that surround the tales of love and its tribulations at the heart of Lully’s operas.
At the biennial Boston Early Music Festival a neglected baroque opera formed the centrepiece of a smorgasbord of Baroque music-making. This year’s sumptuous, musically inspired staging of Psyché, a tragédie en musique from 1678 with a libretto by Thomas Corneille (replacing the disgraced Quinault), did not shirk from the opera’s pomp.
In relating the story of Psyché, the world’s most beautiful woman, who predictably incurs the jealousy of Venus, Gilbert Blin’s production, with inventive choreography by Lucy Graham, elaborate costumes by Anna Watkins and a streamlined set by Caleb Wertenbaker, aimed for baroque stylisation yet was alert to modern sensibilities. In baroque fashion, stage machinery allowed for easy transport between heavens and earth, while amusing touches included a crew of Cyclops working at anvils and juvenile representations of Cupids.
Perhaps because it existed earlier as a tragédie-ballet (with spoken dialogue by Molière), the divertissements of Psyché are extensive. The music, often in a lilting triple meter, can be seductive, yet the presence of so much that is related to the drama only tangentially poses a special challenge.
The approach here was simply to present it as stylishly as possible, in a new edition by festival directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who were also mainstays of the excellent continuo group. Carolyn Sampson’s lovely singing underscored the poignancy of Psyché’s plight, and Karina Gauvin brought out the venom of Venus’s dramatic recitatives. Colin Balzer excelled in a delightful song for Vulcan, and Aaron Sheehan did well as the disguised Amour, who captivates Psyché. (Her eventual pairing off with a prepubescent Cupid seemed odd, if not unseemly.) The orchestra played superlatively, with modest cues from concert master Robert Mealy obviating the need for modern-style conducting.
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