The pastoral tragedy Acis et Galatée was Lully's last finished work, a three-act extravaganza complete with an opening Prologue, a closing Passacaglia, and assorted dances interspersed throughout. In the right performance, it is at once an inspiring work, a relaxing work, and even an entertaining work and this performance by the Choeurs des Musiciens du Louvre led by Marc Minkowski is surely the right performance.
Corelli's older Roman contemporary, Alessandro Stradella, was held in high esteem both by his contemporaries and by later generations of composers. Among his patrons in Rome were the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden and the Colonna and Pamphili families. Stradella's amorous adventures, which eventually led to his murder in Genoa at the age of 37 subsequently gave rise to a novel, an opera by Flotow, a poem, a play and a song text. Though an outstanding oratorio composer he was considered in his own lifetime foremost as a composer for the theatre and his great gifts in this direction enabled him to treat the New Testament story of the imprisonment and murder of John the Baptist with considerable dramatic force.
‘Perhaps the best of all my works’, said Gluck of his Armide. But this, the fifth of his seven ‘reform operas’, has never quite captured the public interest as have Orfeo, Alceste, the two Iphigenies and even Paride ed Elena. Unlike those works it is based not on classical mythology but on Tasso’s crusade epic, Gerusalemme liberata. No doubt Gluck turned to this libretto, originally written by Quinault, to challenge Parisian taste by inviting comparison with the much-loved Lully setting. Its plot is thinnish, concerned only with the love of the pagan sorceress Armide, princess of Damascus, for the Christian knight and hero Renaud, and his enchantment and finally his disenchantment and his abandonment of her; the secondary characters have no real life. Its style, largely determined by the structure of the libretto, is closer to the French tragedie-lyrique traditions than are Gluck’s more familiar operas, with its short airs gliding into arioso and recitative.
Following the success of 1999's thrilling Armide, Marc Minkowski and his excellent cast fully convey the power and drama of Gluck's masterpiece. They pull you into the story (based on a play by Euripides) through the emotional truth of their interpretation. The opening quiet strings create an air of mystery dispelled by a ferocious storm magnificently conveyed by these early-music specialists. Within a few phrases of Iphigénie's opening lament, Delunsch creates a believable, sympathetic character.
Phaeton was first produced not at the Palais-Royal Theatre in Paris but modestly at Versailles in January 1683. In the spring of that year it transferred to the Palais-Royal and was well enough thought of to enjoy revivals at regular intervals into the early 1740s. Indeed, rather as Atys became known as the ''King's opera'' and Isis as the musicians', Phaeton acquired its sobriquet, ''the opera of the people''. Among the many attractive airs ''Helas! Une chaine si belle'' (Act 5) was apparently a favourite duet of Parisian audiences, while ''Que mon sort serait doux'' (Act 2), another duet, was highly rated by Lully himself. In 1688 Phaeton was chosen to inaugurate the new Royal Academy of Music at Lyon where, as Jerome de la Gorce remarks in his excellent introduction, it was so successful ''that people came to see it from forty leagues around''. The present recording is a co-production between Erato and Radio France, set up to mark the occasion of the opening of the new Opera House at Lyon.
The story of rival factions, divine interventions, and love triumphing over obstacles political and personal clearly inspired some of Rameau's most adventurous musical evocations (just one example might be the fascinating harmonic language he uses to depict a magician commanding an eclipse). It's this spirit of daring experiment that Rameau expert Marc Minkowski relishes throughout this magnificent, high-octane, deftly tailored account. He fires the authentic-instrument group Les Musiciens du Louvre into his customary whiplash speeds, which are just perfect for the air of martial excitement that prevails, while the many dance-centered numbers have a muscular grace. The result in general is some of his best work to date on disc, with a special emphasis on the through line of the score. The cast is spectacular–young in demeanor, passionate, and superbly fluent in the idiom. Consider the vocal acting of Véronique Gens as the conflicted heroine Iphise (in love with her father's enemy), with its rich emotional involvement; there's an exciting chemistry between her and the title hero John Mark Ainsley, who gently tapers his vibrato into a beautifully nuanced tenor–now forlorn and outcast, now assertively heroic. Less satisfying is Laurent Naouri's inconsistently projected lower range as the antihero Anténor. The chorus has been beautifully prepared. For this recording, Minkowski uses Rameau's original 1739 version, with some interpolations of especially compelling material from the slimmed-down 1744 revision. (Thomas May)