x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Lully's Bellérophon delivers beauty but is one CD too long

Jean-Baptiste Lully's baroque opera Bellérophon is beautifully performed by Les Talens Lyriques, but today's listener may find it over-long.

Christophe Rousset (conductor),
Les Talens Lyriques,
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Aparte

The name of Jean-Baptiste Lully may be best known to students of the French baroque, but his music will sound familiar to anyone who has ever watched a film about the Sun King, Louis XIV.

The hard glitter of the harpsichord, the double-dotted rhythms, the splendour of the vibrato-free strings and the officious quack of the woodwind all speak of a time in France of decorous manners, extravagance and aristocratic hauteur.

This production of Bellérophon acts as a reminder of why, in that era, music was not simply pretty tunes played and sung but was used by the French court to reflect and project the king's glory and by courtiers as a source of intrigue and insight into the varying fortunes of the king's favourites and advisers.

Thus Thomas Corneille's libretto was not merely an adaptation of a Greek legend, but included odes to Louis XIV's military renown and domestic wealth and subplots that referred to the court's enthusiasms at the time.

The story is rewritten to reflect Louis's abiding love of equestrian pursuits and to pay tribute to what was seen (or portrayed) as his ability to impart international peace. All of this is to explain, then, the fact that Bellérophon offers a plot so labyrinthine it makes The Wire look like Peter & Jane, and this, while musicologically interesting, does prevent the album from being entirely compelling.

The 37 individual tracks here feature both fa-la-la dances and declamatory recitative, and perhaps for those with a perfect grasp of 17th-century poetic French and a lavish stage production the work could hold the attention. For most non-specialist listeners, though, in spite of the beauty of performance and each individual jewel of a melody, the full two-CD set will be an hour too long.