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Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden by John William Waterhouse
21 Jun 2007

Lully’s Psyché at Boston Early Music Festival

There’s not much point in presenting Lully’s Psyché (in its North American premiere no less) unless you’re going to give it something vaguely like the grandeur Louis XIV could command in 1678.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Psyché
Boston Early Music Festival, 15 June 2007

Above: Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden by John William Waterhouse


In a down-home way, Boston’s biennial Early Music Festival achieved this to a remarkable extent: instrumentalists and singers from the front ranks of antique performing practice led by BEMF’s longtime opera conductors, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the staging glamorous but basic, with elaborate dance interludes that were always a significant part of (often the principal excuse for) opera in France, costumes worthy of a costume ball at Versailles, and elaborate stage machinery — there’s a whole lot of flying going on, and entrances are made from above as often as from the wings.

Opera is not a word Lully or his collaborators used for such pieces, and indeed at that point no one in France was quite sure what “opera” meant. Tragédie lyrique, a sung and acted drama, was the thing. Lully’s dignified and magical creations soon circulated about Western Europe. Much of the singing is declamation of stately rather than lyrical melody, a grand manner passed on via Rameau to Gluck, Berlioz and Poulenc. (Wagner made effective use of it too.) This can be unsettling to the average operagoer, accustomed to the song-like manner of Italian opera; but the appreciative audience at the jewel-box Cutler Majestic Theater, accustomed to the stylistic vagaries of older music, ate it up. What gave more pause is another enduring eccentricity of French style: the equal rights accorded to ballet. There are dances throughout Psyché, and the piece concludes with a good half hour of it. This was very prettily achieved in the court manner, but the Boston audience wearied about halfway through the long finale. This is not to fault Lucy Graham, the choreographer, who found exceptional variety in the fixed gestures and poses of court dance, and introduced several whimsical interludes, including a ten-minute “commedia dell’ arte” mimed by the traditional Italian figures. (The enormous and obviously devoted production team included a “Vocal and Gesture Coach.”)

The story is the late classical myth of Psyche (“Soul”), the mortal so beautiful that a jealous Venus vows to destroy her. Venus’s son (L’Amour in the French version), charged with the girl’s destruction, falls for her himself and carries her off to a magical palace where, however, she is forbidden to see what he looks like. Of course, she cheats (cf. Lohengrin and Bluebeard) — in Psyché, it’s because Venus tricks her into doing so — and he leaves her. To get him back, Psyche must descend to the Underworld to fetch Venus a box of beauty from its queen, Proserpine. Of course, she peeks into the box and is lost — but this time the gods relent, Jupiter promotes her to goddess, and all ends happily with the Soul mated to Divine Love. (The subtext, as program essays made plan, concerned the love affair of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.)L'Amour et Psyché by François-Edouard Picot (1817)

Among the singers, as was only proper, the finest had the largest parts: Carolyn Sampson, the pretty Psyché, who sang and acted her long role with conviction and sweet, untiring tone, and Karina Gauvin, as Venus, the opera’s heavy, a role she acquitted with great verve. The episodic narrative included many charming episodes, wittily staged — for instance a marital spat between Gauvin and Colin Balzer, whose lyrical tenor seemed far too attractive for Vulcan, the hardworking smith-god: “You always side with lovers and against husbands,” he sang to her, and the joke was as good in 2007 as in 1678. Lully wrote the Furies — usually visualized as shrieking women — for three low male voices, and the production accordingly presented three men in black, seventeenth-century drag to berate the heroine for intruding upon the dead. L’Amour was acted and, for a line or two, sung, by a winged child actor in order to conform to Cupid’s traditional iconography, but for the wedding night the god magically adopted the form of a full-grown tenor the better to sing duets with. Of the mostly able singers in the many smaller roles, countertenor José Lemos as Silenus had a ravishing sound one would be eager to encounter again.

John Yohalem

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