(Lyrical) Tragedy in Versailles: Phaéton refuses to stop his chariot!

01/06/2018 - Olyrix - Stéphane Lelièvre

The Opéra Royal de Versailles, in collaboration with Perm Opera, proposes the rare Phaéton by Lully in a scenic and musical version applauded for a long time by the public: a triumph not only for Vincent Dumestre and his troops but also for Benjamin Lazar.

Errors excepted, Phaéton by Lully and Quinault (1683) had not been proposed in its stage version since the show by Karine Saporta put on in Lyon in 1993, with Les Musiciens du Louvre directed by Marc Minkowski. In concert form, the work has also been but rarely heard: first in Beaune, then in Paris (salle Pleyel) in 2012, with Les Talens Lyriques directed by Christophe Rousset (audio recordings of both Marc Minkowski and Christophe Rousset’s performances were made; by Erato-Musifrance for the former and Aparté for the latter). It is all the more surprising, as the work proves to be absolutely effective on the dramatic level, and is crammed with musical beauty: splendid duets between Théone and Phaéton, or between Théone and Lybie (act II, scene 3: “That uncertainty / Is a rigorous torment!”), pages that are eminently dramatic (Protée’s predictions in the finale of the first act: “You will fall, expect help no more”), or moving (Théone’s beautiful plaintive cries at the start of the third act: “Ah Phaéton, is it possible / That you be sensible / For another than I?”). There is no doubt that Phaéton must be counted as among one of Lully and Quinault’s most beautiful successes.

The libretto, inspired by Ovide, tells the tragic end of Phaéton, son of the Sun, who wants, through vanity, to drive his father’s chariot and who, through his blunders triggers terrible fires on Earth, before dying, hit by Jupiter’s lightning strike. Onto this framework, other actions and tensions intertwine: family (Clymène, Phaéton’s mother is torn between her desire to see her son come out glorious from a superhuman ordeal and her fear of losing him), sentimental (Phaéton and Théone’s love is damaged by the possible marriage between Phaéton and Lybie, a marriage which would enable the Sun’s son to accede to the throne of Egypt), or political (rivalry between Phaéton and Épaphus). The libretto obviously has a strong allegoric dimension: it is vain and dangerous to want to compete with the Sun (King), and too much arrogance can lead a potential rival to his (or her) downfall. However, it is not so much this historical reference that seduces the 21stcentury public, but the construction of a libretto that offers a panel of situations and feelings peculiar to exciting Lully’s imagination, who signs, with this lyrical tragedy some of his most inspired pages.

The performances currently on at the Opéra Royal de Versailles confirm it and the musical team brought together for this show do full justice to the work. Starting with the musicians from Le Poème Harmonique who adorn the orchestra with shimmering colours and interpret Lully’s music not only with rigor and precision but also with the full palette of nuances that it requires. They are conducted by a highly inspired Vincent Dumestre, who offers a nervous, dramatic reading of the work but, which, in no way excludes emotion and tenderness when the libretto calls for it. The work moves forwards (when some have judged the dramatization of the libretto in five acts a little weak), through a skilful alternation of contrasted ambiances and climaxes, without ever disrupting the impression of continuity, which is peculiar to French lyrical tragedy. Founded in 2004 by Teodor Currentzis, the Chorus of the Perm Opera, MusicÆterna, participates in this series of shows. Even if its repertoire is very eclectic, this group particularly excels in baroque works, which is demonstrated again here: homogeneous registers, precision, musicality, transparency, everything, up to the reconstructed pronunciation of classical French, showing detailed work and an excellent preparation.

While showing the same stylistic rigor and care brought to the declamation as several of his fellow musicians, Mathias Vidal lets be heard, when the context requires it, powerful vocals or certain lyrical flights of fancy that are not necessary shared by all baroque tenors – at the risk of slightly destabilising the balance of the stage. His voice shows itself remarkably sound across the full range of registers, and the seasoned technique of the singer provides him with a great many nuances, from the delicately polished exercise in vocalisation of “I fly” when Phaéton flies towards the Sun at the end of the third act, until the very soft high notes, sung pianissimo of “Death does not surprise me / When it seems beautiful to me” (act IV). As regards the performance of the character, it is exemplary, musically and dramatically: spoilt child, upset, arrogant, ambitious, foolhardy, sometimes touching, all the hero’s facets are given with a naturalness and ease that arouses the enthusiasm of the public at the final curtain. The other male performers, less present, prove to have an excellent level, from Viktor Shapovalov’s resounding Portée to Lisandro Abadie’s Épaphus (who also plays Saturn and Jupiter), a baritone-bass with a proud voice and rich timbre and actor with a confident bearing, or else Cyril Auvity’s Sun (Soleil) (slightly in difficulty in the high notes however), who also sings the roles of Triton and Goddess of the Earth.

On the female side, Phaéton’s two fiancées compete with each other in beauty and vocal elegance: Éva Zaïcik (Lybie) seduces us with her timbre with magnificent reflections of golden brown and Victoire Bunel touches the hearts of the public in the beautiful role of Théone, by her committed stage performance and the emotion with which she adorns each of her appearances, notably the magnificent first scene of Act III in which Théone tries desperately to stop Phaéton from leaving, with words and accents that, curiously, very clearly prefigure those of Berlioz’s Dido: “What, despite my mortal pain / Regardless of my tears, your unfaithful heart / Breaks the knots that were supposed to unite us forever? […] That Love is avenged; that it lights lightning;/ That this superb ambitious person / Falls with his greatness and is reduced to powder.” A fine performance too by Léa Trommenschlager’s queen Clymène, who notably gives a very touching “Live, and limit your desires / To tranquil pleasures / Of mutual love”.

Benjamin Lazar’s direction is a kind of compromise between the historical reconstruction of a show of the time (codified body language, low-angle lighting, the singers sometimes find themselves literally “under the footlights”) and a rereading not contemporary (even if certain costumes or elements of décor clearly come from our time) but atemporal. The show discloses little by little an emotion in perfect harmony with that transmitted by the music and offers some unforgettable scenes, such as the first scene of Act III (presenting a subtle game with light and shadow – sometimes in a mirror image on the backstage wall, or projected right up on the ceiling of the Opéra), or the magnificent final appearance of Phaéton’s chariot, a dazzling wheel of light, from the centre of which the Sun’s son emerges. There are also some film extracts that happily do not replace the staging itself, nor do they carry any heavily didactic message. We more or less understand, by the images of ceremonies or past (or very contemporary) military parades that Benjamin Lazar sees the work as a fable about power, its attraction, its possible drifts, which the reading of Quinault’s libretto absolutely authorises.

A complete success for this show that we hope to be able to applaud again during any possible, and highly desirable, reruns!

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