In the 1600s, it was generally agreed that opera was the sole property of the Italians. So, if you happened to be a French king obsessed with big theatrical spectacles and you wanted your very own opera composer, you’d find yourself an Italian. Giovanni Baptista Lulli (1632-1687) was hired by King Louis XIV to create regal entertainments for his majesty. And while he Frenchified his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully, he also gave the genre of opera its first serious Franco-friendly turn, using French librettos and adding in lots (and lots) of dance music, to satisfy another of the king’s obsessions.
But Lully didn’t just write operas, as a handful of recent recordings demonstrate. His employer also had need for sacred music as well as incidental music for plays. Still, operas were always at the center of Lully’s output. A curmudgeonly – even cruel – taskmaster to his orchestra, the composer died from an injury that could only have happened in his era and occupation. At the time, conductors used to bang a long wooden staff in rhythm with the music during rehearsals. Lully brought his staff down on his foot so hard that the wound became infected, killing him!
Louis XIV made Lully the music director for his an entire court, so he spent much of his time at Versailles. Appropriately, the palace in its modern, tourist-friendly form has become a center for the preservation of Lully’s music, with live performances captured on video and audio. Three such recordings have been released lately on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label.
The first, a co-release with Alpha Classics, is a collection of sacred works performed by the Millenium Orchestra, Cappella Mediterranea, and Le Choeur de Chambre de Namur, conducted by the founder of all three groups, Argentinian-born baroque specialist Leonardo García-Alarcón. Lully’s motet settings of three important liturgical texts are included here: Dies irae, De profundis, and Te Deum.
The opening section of the Te Deum text, “Te Deum laudamus,” gives a powerful indication of García-Alarcón’s understanding of the music of Louis’ court. The key to this sound is a textural and rhythmic freedom underpinned by a strict beat; think of it as a pack of hungry Doberman Pinschers on a titanium chain. You get the sense that elements of the music could tear loose at any moment, but won’t: the center will hold. (Now picture the audacious decorations and costumes of 17th-century Versailles, and you’re practically in the king’s presence.)
Besides García-Alarcón’s excellently trained instrumental and vocal groups, the director chose a top-flight cast of soloists for these motets. Among them are tenor Mathias Vidal and soprano Sophie Junker.
Part of the fun of working in early music is the chance to present little-known pieces. In 1668, Lully was commissioned by his royal boss to provide incidental music for a new play by the great Molière. George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (George Dandin or the Hoodwinked Husband) was a comedy, and Lully’s musical interludes for it simply sparkle. You can hear them in another Versailles-produced recording, this one featuring the Ensemble Marguerite Louis, under the baton of Gaétan Jarry.
Here is Virginie Thomas singing the aria “Mortelles douleurs” (Mortal Sorrows) with grace and passion, not to mention exquisite control. The orchestra’s accompaniment is sensitive and aching. And the video offers some great views of the ballroom in Versailles as well as all the baroque instruments in use.
This recording contains another fascinating work, Lully’s first collaboration with his long-time opera-writing partner, librettist Philippe Quinault. Their collaboration is credited with inventing new ways to make the French language work in operatic music. This particular piece, La grotte de Versailles (The Cave of Versailles) was a wild theatrical romp glorifying the king and allowing His Majesty a chance to dance onstage in the costume of a nymph. Louis’ court was always, shall we say, interesting.
In the section called “Chantons tous en ce jour” (We all sing this day), Jarry deftly sweeps orchestra, chorus, and soloists through Lully’s rushing musical rapids. The balance is perfect as the text celebrates just how great their king is.
The most recent collection on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label is Dies irae (Collection Grands Motets, Vol. 1). These gorgeous performances, dripping with historically accurate detail, feature the ensemble Les Epopées, a chorus and orchestra under the direction of Stéphane Fuget. Although much of the video recording of these performances is already on YouTube, the audio-only album is still awaiting release later in 2021. (Its tracks are listed on Spotify, but not yet playable.)
The recording contains several motets. You can hear the complete Dies irae live here:
Listen for the respect paid to Lully’s “vertical” harmony, meaning that chords and accented beats, as opposed to the melody, dominate the motion of the music. (It is no coincidence that the music director banged a staff on the floor during rehearsals.) The percussive sound is partly provided by harpsichord and bowing techniques. The huge orchestral chords with the chorus calling “Rex!” (“King!”) followed by silence must have created quite a stir in Louis’ court, and it does so here as well.
The rich sound in the motet “O Lachrymae fideles” blends the chorus and orchestra majestically with the soloists’ voices. Countertenors Clément Debieuvre and Cyril Auvity and tenor Marco Angioloni prove themselves skilled in early Baroque intonation, ornamentation, and rhythmic style.
Despite all the sacred and specialty works discussed above, Lully was and is most famous for his operas. A group to watch in this field is Les Talens Lyriques, under the direction of Christophe Rousset. Their most recent Lully recording is of his opera Isis, a fine companion to their recording of his Alceste from 2017. Le Coeur de Chambre de Namur provides their usual majestic sound.
Isis tells a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as do many of Lully’s operas. Juno, wife of the infamously promiscuous god Jupiter, imprisons the nymph Io for sleeping with her husband. Mercury wants to free Io, so he puts on an extravagant opera (yes, an opera within an opera) to distract Argus, who is guarding her. Trust me, the story doesn’t matter as much as the spectacle.
The whole recording, broken into tracks, is available on YouTube. Ève-Maud Hubeaux and Bénédicte Tauran, as Io and Juno, respectively, demonstrate the contrasting vocal styles Lully employed for different types of female characters. Edwin Crossley-Mercer is a thunderous Jupiter.
If you’re looking for a taste of all these genres of Lully’s music, I recommend the recent re-release by Deutsche Grammophon of the soundtrack to Le roi danse (The King Dances). This 2000 movie by Gérard Corbiau is a biopic about Lully’s life at court. The soundtrack, played primarily by Music Antiqua Köln under the direction of Reinhard Goebel, includes exceptional performances of incidental music, sacred works, and operatic scenes. Because the creation of the opera Acis et Galatée is an important part of the film, that work is included in its entirety.
But the only proper way to close is with operatic dance music, that idiosyncratic genre insisted upon by Lully’s patron. As you listen to this stately Sarabande from the opera Les plaisirs de l’île enchantée (The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island), feel free to bound onstage and cut a rug with crazy ol’ King Louis.