Phaéton, composed in Lully’s maturity, was based on a text by Quinault, his favourite librettist, who was inspired by a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Phaëton is the son of the Sun God (Helios) and of the ocean nymph Clymene. Driven by ambition, he abandons his beloved fiancée Théone to pursue Lybie, the daughter of the King of Egypt, to become the successor to the throne. Lybie’s lover, Epaphus, son of Zeus, is enraged and challenges Phaëton’s divine origin. Phaëton asks his father to allow him to ride the Sun Chariot through the skies for one day to impress his rival, a request that his father, bound by a sacred oath, cannot refuse. This ride will prove disastrous: Phaëton loses control of the horses and sets fire to the Earth and the skies. The terrified humans ask Zeus to intervene, and he strikes down Phaëton with his lightning bolt.

<i>Phaéton</i> © Andrey Chuntomov
Phaéton
© Andrey Chuntomov

The opera premiered in 1683 in the very same Royal Theatre of Versailles. This was the year that Louis XIV’s court moved to Versailles, and the political message was clear: nobody can shine as brilliantly as the Sun; whoever challenges the Sun King will be struck down. This is Lully’s only opera in which not only a happy end is avoided, nobody mourns the death of the lead character, either. This may be a reference to an actual event: it is said that the superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, became immensely rich, built a splendid castle in Vaux-le-Vicomte and gave a spectacular party. Louis XIV did not take this outrageous flaunting of wealth and power well, and Fouquet died in prison.

This production saw Vincent Dumestre leading an ensemble with elements of Le Poème Harmonique, the Baroque orchestra he founded, and the MusicAeterna chorus and orchestra, founded by Teodor Currentzis in Perm, Russia. It was a match made in heaven: the orchestra played with warmth and extreme precision, with emphasis on the dynamics, and featured a stunning continuo. The MusicAeterna chorus confirmed the strong impression it has made in the musical world over the past few years as truly exceptional chorus: they had an incredible sense of ensemble, a unity of purpose and a fierce drive. Their dynamics and phrasing were excellent.

Lisandro Abadie (Epaphus) and Eva Zaïcik (Lybie) © Nikita Chuntomov
Lisandro Abadie (Epaphus) and Eva Zaïcik (Lybie)
© Nikita Chuntomov

The idea at the heart of the production (by Benjamin Lazar) was based on declamation and gestures typical of the Baroque period. French pronunciation of the 17th century, with all the final consonants sounded, gave precision and energy to the declamation, while the Baroque gestures framed the interpretation of the singers as a period performance.

The staging provided by Mathieu Lorry-Dupuy, unfortunately, was less convincing. The imagery mixed modern times, ancient Egypt and the 18th century with no discernible pattern or motive. The stage was often bare, while the costumes, which referenced Russia, grew more flamboyant as the acts progressed. Instead of the ballets, videos were shown. At the finale of the second act, during the celebration of the engagement of Phaëton and Lybie, we saw images of pompous military parades and sporting events ceremonies. The opera's finale, with the Earth burning, was enhanced by terrifying videos of fires, explosions and scorched landscapes. The fourth act, in the palace of the Sun God, was one of the most successful: the golden costumes of the Sun God and his court were dazzling; mirrors on stage reflected the suffused lightning pervading the theatre as if the sun were really shining in the hall.

Victoire Bunel (Théone) © Andrey Chuntomov
Victoire Bunel (Théone)
© Andrey Chuntomov

The cast comprised ten French and Russian Baroque specialists, covering 16 characters. The general standard of the singers was excellent: every one of them showed mastery of the style, perfect intonation and a beautiful colour palette. Victoire Bunel, as Théone and Elizaveta Svenshnikova (as Astrée and First Hour of the Day) deserve a mention among the women for the beauty and richness of their timbre.

The true stars were the two haute-contre: Mathias Vidal in the title role, and Cyril Auvity as the Sun God, Triton and the Goddess of the Earth. The casting could not have been better. Vidal, with his heroic tone, perfectly embodied the rash, ambitious youth, his top register strong and powerful. Auvity, as his father, was appropriately even more convincing, with a lyrical tone, elegant phrasing, and an equally powerful high register, his voice shining as a true Sun God.

The audience in Versailles, who followed the performance in religious silence, exploded in applause at the end, granting a deserved success to all the artists.