Cavalli’s Ercole Amante is an oddity. It was intended as a wedding present from Cardinal Mazarin to Louis XIV but got hijacked by Lully who inserted a bunch of ballets for the king to dance stretching out the piece to something like six hours. It wasn’t a great success. It’s also a very odd story for a piece intended for a royal patron as I explained in reviewing an earlier recording. It’s also in Italian which may make the only French court work to be performed in that language.
I guess there are two ways one can approach “Gothic Horror”. Either one takes its conventions at face value as in, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or one treats it tongue in cheek; Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey of the BBC Dracula from earlier this year. It’s no surprise that in La nonne sanglante Gounod very much takes things at face value and, equally unsurprisingly chucks in a fair amount of Catholic religiosity complete with the unlikeliest characters wandering off to Heaven at the end.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory was written for Paris so it’s appropriate that there should be a recording from the Opéra Comique. It’s directed by Denis Podalydès who chooses to set it around the time of the opera’s creation (1828) with the “crusader” element replaced by the French conquest of Algeria. The sets and costumes are pretty conventional with a heavy emphasis on religious symbolism; some of it rather awry. There’s also a heavy element of sexual frustration. The comedy is all very much there but it’s not too slapstick and there’s none of the annoying cheesiness of Bartlett Sher’s New York version. It all feels very French.
Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school. At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action. They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph. It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story. Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost). In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats. These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic. The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans. Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.
Lully’s Atys was, apparently, Louis XIV’s favourite opera. It’s not hard to see why. Within the rigid conventions of its time and place it really is rather fine. The plot is classical and convoluted. After an allegorical prologue celebrating Louis’ successful winter campaign in the Low Countries we get the story proper. The hero Atys loves the nymph Sangaride, daughter of the god of the river Sangar, who returns his affection She is betrothed to Celenus, king of the Phrygians. The goddess Cybèle fancies Atys and makes him her high priest. Atys uses his position to nix the wedding which upsets both Cybèle and Celenus. Cybèle blinds Atys who kills himself but is immortalised by being turned into a tree by Cybèle. All of this takes over three hours with lots of ballets and other set pieces. The music is French 17th century court music so it’s a bit unvaried but much of it is very fine indeed.
The works of the French baroque are a rather specialized taste. Some people love them, some not so much. There are also strong views on performance style. Some people favour an essentially modern treatment as in Robert Carsen’s Paris Garnier production of Rameau’s Les Boréades. Others are fans of the fantasy baroque approach taken by the likes of Opera Atelier. I’ve seen good examples of both approaches. What I haven’t seen before is a rigorous attempt to recreate a 17th century staging complete with period appropriate scenery and stage effects. In 2008 such an attempt was made at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique in Paris. The work involved was the first true opera in French; Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione. The results are very interesting.