The Royal Opera in Versailles presented a concert version of Alceste, based on a new, complete edition of the score, the result of thorough research through Lully's manuscripts. The work was performed at the festival in Beaune this past summer with the same cast. Christophe Rousset's take on Jean-Baptiste Lully's work is captivating and entertaining, besides being an important cultural achievement as well.

Christophe Rousset © Eric Larrayadieu
Christophe Rousset
© Eric Larrayadieu

Alceste, the second collaboration between Lully and the dramatist Philippe Quinault, is the first tragedy in music whose coherence, liveliness, strength and poetic power equal the classical spoken theatre. The style is sumptuous, exuding a sense of balance between the different elements created by Lully: the grandiose to please the king, and the tragic, exemplary human. The story is based on Euripides' play, where Admetus, King of Thessaly, is dying. Apollo grants him life if somebody will choose to die in his place, and his wife Alcestis kills herself to save her husband (she is rescued from the underworld by Hercules, for a happy ending). Quinault enriches the plot with two other suitors for Alcestis, one of which is Hercules himself, a clear reference to the Sun King, and becomes the protagonist of the story. The opera was first performed in 1674, during the celebrations for the conquest of the Franche-Comté during the Franco-Dutch war. Louis XIV was a warrior king, and this opera grows more and more martial as the story unfolds, featuring a siege with war machines, while the orchestral colour becomes decidedly military.

Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques own this music to the very last detail, and the result was a performance of uncommon clarity and precision. All the musicians concentrated on details, the dynamics and the palette of colours needed to highlight the enfolding tragedy. The utterly precise, clean sound was at times at odds with the emotional commitment, but it suited the style perfectly. The continuo was consistently excellent, supporting recitatives and arias with a warm, engaged performance, while Russell Gilmour, on natural trumpet, deserves mention for his incredibly precise, enthusiastic, faultless playing. The Namur Chamber Choir was one of the stars of the afternoon, with beautiful vocal emission and sense of ensemble. Their precision rivalled that of the orchestra in this duel of staggering beauty.

Chorus and orchestra were matched by an overall excellent cast of Baroque specialists: nine singers who covered some 26 characters between them. Edwin Crossley-Mercer portrayed Hercules (Alcide) with a warm and smooth baritone, exceptionally uniform in the whole range. The only singer who sang only one character, he was also the only singer who made an entrance, while all his colleagues were already sitting in their chairs from the overture. He was definitely the protagonist.

Judith van Wanroij, as Alcestis and La Gloire, convinced with a deeply emotional soprano, though perhaps a bit weak in the middle register. Her duets with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro's Admetus were one of the highlights of the performance. Gonzalez Toro showed a very unusual voice: an agile, very high tenor, in the haute-contre range, but with a heroic character and a dark quality. The mixture was quite enjoyable and suited to the character of the Thessalian King.

Ambroisine Bré was Cephise, Alcestis' confidante, and other characters. Apart from some slight intonation problems at the beginning – nerves, perhaps – her interpretation of the shallow, sensual girl was absolutely spot on, her singing conveying the lively, vibrant teenager's joie de vivre. Her two suitors were Enguerrand de Hys (Lychas), a more typical haute-contre with a light, brilliant voice; and Etienne Bazola (Straton) with a very good top and a round, full baritone.

Bass Douglas Williams brought to life the characters of Licomède (the other suitor of Alcestis) and Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. Charon has the catchiest aria of the whole opera, and Williams performed it with gusto and a deep, booming bass.

Lucía Martín-Cantón charmed with her sensuous soprano, especially in her interpretation of the afflicted woman mourning the death of Alcestis, while Bénédicte Tauran convinced with a full-bodied soprano as the goddesses Teti and Diana, and a nymph in the Prologue.

All the singers showed a remarkable adherence to the French Baroque declamatory style and they all contributed to a highly entertaining, joyful performance.