The musicians’ opera

The musical tragedy Isis, composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully on a libretto by Philippe Quinault, who found his inspiration in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, caused quite a stir at the court of King Louis XIV when it premiered in 1677. Opening with a prologue, a pean to the French sovereign, as was customary at the time, this opera in five acts is focused on the love affair between the god Jupiter and the nymph Io, promised in marriage to Hierax. Io will have to give in to the attacks of the most powerful god, and will find herself the victim of the wrath of Juno, Jupiter’s jealous wife. At the time the court of the Sun King was in the grip of a scandal, involving the king’s favorite, Madame de Montespan, who was then very jealous of the king’s affair with Mademoiselle de Ludres. When the opera was first performed, Montespan recognized herself in the character of Juno and Mlle de Ludres in that of Io, which ultimately led to the disgrace of Quinault, whose intention was certainly far from causing a scandal at court with the choice of this story.

Isis was the fifth collaboration between Lully and Quinault, after their success with Cadmus et Hermione, Alceste ou Le Triomphe d’Alcide, Thésée and Atys. Like these last two works, Isis is one of the lyrical tragedies created at the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye between 1675 and 1677, where particularly sumptuous performances were given as Jérôme de La Gorce explains in his biography of the composer :

« Tragedies in music, conceived from the outset to be a royal genre, were to benefit from an incomparable brilliance when Louis XIV made the decision, after the performances of Alceste in the marble court at Versailles, to organise the creation of Lully’s future operas in his residence in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. For three years, from 1675 to 1677, during the carnival period, Thésée, Atys and Isis were born in the great ballroom of the old castle. The number of performers required on these occasions was so considerable that it did not fail to surprise the contemporaries. » ( Personal translation)

If Louis XIV was then so keen on tragedies in music, it was caused by his having to give up dancing in public at the age of 37 in 1675. From the court ballet and the comedy ballet the sovereign now turned his attention to tragedies in music, i.e. the beginnings of French opera. Indeed, as Jean-Michel Vinciguerra, one of the curators of the excellent exhibition « Un air d’Italie: l’Opéra de Paris de Louis XIV à la Révolution » (An Aria from Italy: the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to the Revolution) rightly reminds us in the beautiful paperback catalogue of this exhibition that opera as a genre was born in Italy and was first exported to France by Queen Marie de Medici, of Florentine origin, and then promoted by another Italian, Cardinal Mazarin. In 1669 « Louis XIV and his minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert granted the poet Pierre Perrin an opera « privilege », which constituted « a political response to the challenge of Italian opera » (Jean-Michel Vinciguerra, « Aux origines de l’opéra français, » Un air d’Italie: l’Opéra de Paris de Louis XIV à la Révolution, BNF Editions, my translation). Lully’s career had experienced « a tremendous rise in the 1660s, when he became the King’s superintendent of music, and it was up to the Florentine composer, who had become a naturalized French citizen in the meantime, to « create a new genre, the tragedy in music, and to join forces with Philippe Quinault for the literary quality of the libretti, Pierre Beauchamps for the grace of the ballet and Carlo Vigarani for the splendor of the scenography. In fact, as Vinciguerra explains, « French opera is the place where themes and forms belonging to a plurality of genres (court ballet, comedy ballet, Italian opera, machine shows, pastoral) come together. »

Regarded as « the musicians’ opera », as Jean-Laurent Le Cerf de La Viéville dubbed it, Isis is a piece that is full of charm, mixing different love stories, which mirror each other, but its main charm lies in the beauty of the music composed by Lully and the richness of the show imagined by Quinault than in its dramatic tension. Thus, as Philippe Beaussant explains in his book Lully ou le Musicien du Soleil, this opera is devoid of any « strictly dramatic force » or « unity of action », and represents « a return to a light and even humorous tone ». This opera resembles « a mosaic », which was « considered a major flaw at the time » of its creation, but which makes the charm of this genuine entertainment.

The present recording of Isis by Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques is a real delight, and without a doubt for me the reference recording both thanks to its orchestral qualities and the vocal beauty of the soloists as of the members of the choir, Le Chœur de Chambre de Namur. Rousset conducts his ensemble with his usual rigour and energy, giving a lot of edge, precision as well as beautiful colours to the orchestral score. Orchestral luxury is expressed here with a certain austerity which, far from being a defect, is one of the great qualities of the interpretation. Lully’s music needs to be corseted in order to bring out its « classical » architecture, inasmuch as the genre of the lyrical tragedy conceived by Lully and Quinault, while transgressing classical theatre by its exhibition of violence, the fabulous and the world of dreams, nevertheless remains an « integral part of classical theatre » as Catherine Kintzler reminds us in her book Théâtre et opéra à l’âge classique: une familiarité:

« The lyrical tragedy shows what the dramatic tragedy does not show (fabulous actions and agents, depiction of violence, dreams and hallucinations). It shows it in other ways (music and dance in poetic situations, machines, changes of place). It produces another effect, one of enchantment and poetic horror. It must be stressed that this otherness is not a license, but a rule. Moreover, once these inversions have been made, the lyrical tragedy follows the general laws of classical theatre: ressemblance, necessity, aptness. A structural relationship intellectually unites the two scenes and separates them in reality ». (Personal translation)

Thus the sharpness, precision, sense of phrasing and articulation of Christophe Rousset’s conducting makes up for the lack of dramatic force of Quinault’s libretto, a libretto nevertheless remarkable for its musicality and its poetical language. Rousset manages to maintain a constant dramatic tension, helped in this by the excellence of all the soloists, each of whom interprets several roles, and of the choir, all of these singers being remarkable for the clarity of their diction and their great qualities as tragedians.

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