An heroic pastoral: Lully's Acis et Galatée from Les Talens Lyriques

An heroic pastoral: Lully's Acis et Galatée from Les Talens Lyriques

Jean-Baptiste Lully's “heroic pastoral” Acis et Galatée was his last completed opera, findshed short months before his death in 1687. It was conceived as an entertainment to be included in the festivities organised by Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme, and his friends Charles-Auguste, Marquis de La Fare, and Abbé Guillaume Amfrye de Chaulieu, in honour of Louis de France, known as the Grand Dauphin or Monseigneur, during his stay at the Château d'Anet in September 1686. For the first time in thirteen years, Lully turned away from the tragédie en musique to work on this lighter genre. In a prologue and three acts (rather than the five of a tragédie en musique), a pastorale was better suited to the joyous celebrations planned for Anet.

The story is the time-honoured one set by so many composers (including Handel's famous piece). Wikipedia is magnificently pithy, but this is what happens:

The story is of a love triangle between the three main characters—Acis, Galatea, and Poliphème. Poliphème murders Acis out of jealousy, but Acis is revived and turned into a river by Neptune

So there you are, a sea-nymph (Galatée), a shepherd (Acis) and a cyclops (Polyphemus). The Aparté booklet goes, unsurprisingly, into more detail. Lully also had a new librettist. He had worked with Philippe Quinault almost exclusively since 1672; but Quinault retured after Armide (1686), so Lully enlisted the playwright Jean Galbert de Campistron, who took his material from Book XIII of Ovid's Metamosphoses. Campistron added a sub-plot, a second couple, Galatée's confidante Scylla (Bénedicte Tauran) and Acis' confindant (Telemus, here Télème).

Christophe Rousset introduces the work, and his soloists, in this fascinating video (which also has plenty of sound samples):


The increased importance of the orchestra in this piece s everywhere apparent, not least in the

It is the wonderful Ambroisine Bré who sings Diana in the Prologue (Bré has already featured in two previous Lully recordings by Rousset). She's joined by Deborah Cachet as  a dryad and Philippe Estèphe as a sylvan - note how Estèphe and the lower instruments of Les Talens Lyriques' articulations are matched so perfectly in his contributions. It is levels of detail like this that make Rousset's performances so special (from “Nous avons preparé pour lui” in the excerpt below), and one can also hear why in his introductory video, Rousset refers to Estèphe as a “magnificent baritone”:

Rousset's characterisation of each air and movement is supreme. Putting attention on both Rousset and Bré, then, here's Galatée's Chaconne from the second act, “Qu’une injuste fierté”:

.. which, if you purchased Rousst's harpsichord disc Le Mauscrit de Madame Théobon in the light of Classical Explorer's previous post,  you will surely recognise that music. Here it is on solo harpsichord, performed by Rousset himself:

Deborah Cachet makes her Lully/Rousset debut on this set. Cyrille Auvity returns, who has featured on so many of Rousset's discs, as Acis to Bré's Galatée. One can hear his ringing tenor in this, act one scene three, ”Foudra-t-il encore vous attendre”:

.. while the ritournelle that opens the second act featires both Bré and Auvity, a plateau of beauty as Acis and Galatée finally agree on their love for each other:

I just want to share with you a moment of exquisite perfection: listen to Lully's linear woorkings in the orchestra before Ambroisine Bré enters with “Enfin, j'ai dissipé la craine” (At last, I have dissipated the fear [that kept me below the waves]). This is a supremely expressive air, and Bré is unbeatable:

It is the character of Neptune that  closes out the opéra, transforming Galatée into a river. We heard Philippe Estèphe in the Prologue as a sylvan - as Neptune he is commanding and focused of voice. This excerpt, “Je sors de mes grottes profondes” (I come forth from my deep grottoes) has the added advantage that it allws us to sample the superb chorus used in thsi recording, the Chœur de Chamber de Namur:

It is a lovely happenstance that most of the tracks on this two-disc set are short, but the final D-minor Passacaille between two Neiads (sung by Cachet and Tauran) is just a touch under 14 minutes, so gives us an extended span in which one can really immerse oneself in the atmosphere of this delightful, masterful “heroic pastoral”:

Al of the sinegers are magnificent. We shouldn't forget the excellent tenor Robert Gretchell as Comus in the Prologue (and Télème in the Pastorale). Here he is as Comus in the Prlogie, “Apollon flatte nos vœux” (Apollo favours our intentions), one minute and six second of pure joy:

The standards of this release - musicological, musical, vocal, standard of recording, presentation - are simply beyond criticism. The resultant joy it brings to the listener cannot be exaggerated. A phenomenal release.

The Amazon link below includes a whopping 3% off, incidentally.