Lully: Phaéton – review

Druet/Perruche/Gonzalez Toro/Auvity/ Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset

Lully's Phaéton is something of a puzzle. First performed at Versailles in January 1683, it proved so popular when it was heard in Paris the following April that it was nicknamed "the people's opera", effectively refuting notions that the genre was primarily a courtly prerogative. The subject, a guarded critique of aristocratic arrogance and monarchical magnanimity, may have had much to do with it: Phaéton, son of the sun god – called simply Le Soleil in the opera – extracts an oath from his father to grant him anything he desires, but then demands the right to drive the latter's chariot through the heavens, with catastrophic results.

Yet for all its brilliance, the piece has its faults. Unusually for Lully, it's dramatically discursive. Phaéton, his ambition fostered by his pushy mother Clymène, kicks off his disastrous career by dumping his beloved Théone in favour of a dynastic marriage with Libye, thus destroying the latter's relationship with Epaphus – a complex erotic-emotional tangle, which takes too long to establish at the start, and of which we lose sight too easily towards the end. Lully's musical imagination, curiously, isn't quite up to depicting that final, destructive chariot ride, though elsewhere we find some of the greatest passages in his entire output - above all the vast chaconne that closes the second act, and the breathtaking depiction of Le Soleil's kingdom that opens the fourth.

You probably won't hear it better done. Very few interpreters capture the panache and grandeur of Lully's music as well as Christophe Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques, and the energy and grace of the performance are immensely appealing, even in the work's less successful passages. It's spectacularly sung, too. Phaéton and Le Soleil (Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Cyril Auvity) are high tenors and both formidable, with the son aspiring to – but never quite reaching – his father's comfortable vocal stratospheres. Isabelle Druet is the tragic Théone, the primary focus of Lully's sympathies, Ingrid Perruche the diva-ish, self-dramatising Clymène. Riveting, despite the work's flaws.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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