Lully - Cadmus & Hermione

Opéra Comique, Paris, Saturday January 26 2008

Conductor and art direction: Vincent Dumestre. Production: Benjamin Lazar. Sets: Adeline Caron. Costumes: Alain Blanchot. Cadmus: André Morsch. Hermione: Claire Lefilliâtre. Arbas, Pan: Arnaud Marzorati. La Nourrice, Dieu Champêtre: Jean-François Lombard. Charite, Mélisse: Isabelle Druet. Draco, Mars: Arnaud Richard. L'Amour, Palès: Camille Poul. Le Soleil, 1er Prince Tyrien: David Ghilardi. Le Grand Sacrificateur, Jupiter: Geoffroy Buffière. 1er Africain, L'Envie: Romain Champion. 2nd Prince Tyrien: Vincent Vantyghem. Junon, Aglante: Luanda Siqueira. Pallas: Engénie Warnier. 2nd Africain: Anthony Lopapa. Dancers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Poème Harmonique.

Most of the critics are saying the same thing: twenty years on (they're thinking of Atys), Lully is back with a bang. Atys is seen in France as Baroque opera's first "popular" smash hit. Villégier set it, not in period scenery and stage costumes, but in the marble halls, silver furnishings, black, grey and silver court mourning dress and white wigs of Versailles in the latter years of Louis XIV. This time, with Cadmus et Hermione (the work that won Lully his royal patronage) the production attempts to go HIP all the way.

Those who have seen Benjamin Lazar's production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme on DVD will immediately get the idea: period sets and machinery, with billowing pasteboard clouds, serpents and dragons on wires, Apollo and Mars descending from the skies on thrones, Cupid flying through the air; lavish, colourful costumes using up acres of brocade, yards of gold fringe and an aviary of dyed feathers, and including some of those fantasy outfits you can still buy prints of at the Louvre: a pastry chef, a game of chequers and chess...; batteries of (real) candles for soft, warm lighting; period dancing, gestures and even pronunciation (for anyone interested, there's an essay on that in the Pléiade edition of Racine).

The result is a softly glowing, old-master-like display of "total art" 200 years before Wagner, and people love it: "Just like being at the court of Louis XIV," the ladies beside me gushed. The trouble, for me, is that the distancing effect of the whole enterprise, hieratic gestures and all, prevents any real emotion emerging, other than from the orchestra. Perhaps with a director and singers a notch more experienced? Under Villégier and Christie, Guillemette Laurens and Guy de Mey managed to project outbursts of anger or grief beyond the conventions. Here, the young singers (not one of whom I'm aware of having come across before. Where did they all come from, I wondered - the newspaper critic I asked at the interval had no idea either) remained imprisoned in their greasepaint.

They made nevertheless a strong team: plenty of sweet young voices with good tuning and diction and some excellent cameos: L'Amour, La Nourrice (an haute-contre in drag) and an excellent Arnaud Marzorati as the cowardly braggart Arbas. The weak point, unfortunately, was Hermione: Claire Lefilliâtre seemed to have Guillemette Laurens' faults (perilous tuning, shaky lines) but none of her dramatic strengths (Laurens was a powerful Cybèle, even on CD).

Vincent Dumestre took a more rustic than elegant approach to Lully, which suited me but not that critic I chatted with over the sandwiches.

Overall, a change - no doubt about that - from Eurotrash, but to be frank the exercise is to me more a splendid curiosity than a flesh-and-blood operatic experience and, by the end, verging on tedious. I wouldn't want more than one such production a year, if that - though of course I'd love lots, lots more Lully.


  1. I'm watching the new DVD. Congratulations for your impressions, as all French critics are the same, your opinion is very interesting. It’s exactly what I thing about this new production. I saw Atys in 1989 in Montpellier, and indeed there is nothing comparable. I remember also the Malgoire and Martinoty’s production of Alceste, the choir was strongest and the singers were better; this is may be a good theatre production but it’s not an opera production, or a “tragedie en musique”, they are more interested in their artificial “gestuelle baroque” than a real singing or dancing: baroque was the art of perpetual movement and transformation and surprise (bernini’s fountains for ex.), we don’t find that here. I think I will return to my new wonderful Cd of Psyché even the Boston Players have a little English accent !


  2. Have to disagree, old chaps. I thought it was lovely from start to finish. But I'll take your hint about the 1989 Atyss and go looking a copy of that. Sounds excellent !

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