L’Opéra de Rennes, 2017
Vincent Tavernier, Hervé Niquet
Actors: Laurent Prévôt, Pierre-Guy Cluzeau, Maxime Costa, Mélanie Le Moine, Benoît Dallongeville, Quentin-Maya Boyé, Olivier Berhault, Claire Barrabès, Marie Loisel
Solistes: Lucie Roche, Eva Zaïcik, Margo Arane, Laurent Deleuil, Clément Debieuvre, Martial Pauliat, Victor Sicard, Virgile Ancely, Geoffroy Buffière
Culturebox - 27 January 2017
The comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques (The Magnificent Lovers) can't really be described as an opera; it’s essentially a play by Molière with musical interludes or ‘intermèdes’ by Lully. The opportunity to see one of these rare collaborations performed however is not to be missed. Created in 1670 as a royal entertainment for Louis XIV and not staged anywhere since, Les Amants magnifiques is an unusual kind of lyric drama, a "comédie en cinq actes en prose, mêlée de musique et d’entrées de ballet" where the music, the drama and the ballet all have their distinct place and yet combine to create the most wonderful entertainment; an entertainment fit for kings indeed.
If there's any one form that dominates the proceedings, it's Molière's play, with Lully providing music for the opening, for a ballet-opera interlude and for the conclusion. In practice, the comédie-ballet is very much a combined effort, conceived of as a whole, with the music, the drama and ballet intended to combine with stage spectacle to create a more complete work of entertainment, but allowing a greater flexibility an opera or even an opéra-comique would permit. At this point in the history of French opera, these comédie-ballets were a stage towards music having a larger role in the tragédies en musique and tragedies-lyriques that Lully would later create, and as a consequence these earlier works for the lyric-dramatic-ballet stage have been largely neglected and forgotten.
It is probably also the case - as Richard Strauss discovered when it attempted a modern version of intermèdes in his first version of Ariadne auf Naxos, combining it with the drama of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - that no-one could blend the drama and music with such facility as Molière and Lully. Certainly on the evidence of Les Amants magnifiques, which is played with all the French humour and lightness of touch that you would expect from the specialist baroque theatre company Les Malins Plaisirs at the Opera de Rennes, with Hervé Niquet directing Lully's music from the pit.
There's plenty of time for Lully to set the scene, foregoing the usual tributes to the Sun King (which seem to be reserved for the grand conclusion instead), for a lengthy prologue in homage to Neptune and the gods of the sea, where a turbulent storm seems to reflect the one that lies within the heart of the Greek general Sostrate, who is wandering through the woods wearing a melancholic disposition. The court servant Clitidas doesn't need to consult the court astrologer to identify the problem; he can see in Sostrate's eyes that he is in love, and hopelessly in love, since he knows that the Princess Eriphile is far beyond the reach of a lowly soldier. The most Sostrate can hope for is to be able to die before his secret is found out.
Well, Clitidas doesn't think much of that plan and is determined to do something about it. It's going to take some clever work however - not so much on the part of Eriphile, since Clitidas knows that the Princess also has feelings for Sostrate that a lady in her position can't declare either - but because her mother Princess Aristione has other marriage plans for her. Two princes, Iphicrate and Timoclès, have come looking for her hand, and Eriphile is being pressed to make her choice. Tired of her daughter's prevarication, Princess Aristione calls on Sostrate to find out which of the two she is going to make her mind up to choose.
At this stage the drama is interrupted by a musical interlude which takes the form of a pastorale. The drama within a drama tells the story of a humble shepherd Tircis who falls in love with beautiful Calisto, but is unable to speak of his love for her and wishes to die. Sound familiar? The drama within a drama has however been hijacked by Clitidas, who gives the players the revised script in order to drop a big hint to all involved of the viability of a marriage between Sostrate and Eriphile, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. It's easy to get distracted admittedly, as Lully's mini-opera composition for this scene is just beautiful.
There's further work to be done then and happily it involves plenty more opportunities for music, ballet, spectacle, with the other players also trying to manipulate the situation with fake astrology and special effects in a grotto. It's hard to argue with flying dragons and the intervention of the goddess Venus who appears to tell them who to pick, and almost everyone is content to have the decision taken for them. The ruse however is undone when Sostrate proves his worthiness to marry the daughter by saving the life of the mother from an attacking wild boar - a true message from the gods if ever there was one. Or at least convincing enough to bring Les Amants magnifiques to a spectacular, dramatic and joyful conclusion with much dancing and music courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The collaboration of Molière and Lully on this work really is a thing of joy. It's thoroughly French in nature, a work of complete entertainment, and its qualities are presented as such in this Rennes production directed by Vincent Tavernier. It's the blending and contrasting tones and colour that make it such a delight, the drama giving way to music and dance, the drama itself being a masterful blend of romance, mythology and comedy. There's almost a pantomime quality to Les Amants magnifiques, the romance and drama mostly played straight, with the comic intervention, pauses, asides of irreverent Clitidas mocking the timorous lovers and the foolish behaviour of the rest.
The comic timing and acting of Pierre-Guy Cluzeau is instrumental in establishing this character, preventing all of the extravagant musical and dramatic situations from taking themselves too seriously. All of the actors of the Les Malins Plaisirs theatre company however are clearly well versed in how to play and deliver this kind of material and it's a joy to see how they progress the drama. On top of that you have a cast of bright young singers to bring out the lyrical side of Lully's contribution, Hervé Niquet to manage the rhythms for the dancers, and a colourful set that uses traditional effects and props that manage to look both cheesy and spectacular. Les Amants magnifiques is a right royal entertainment.
Links: L’Opéra de Rennes, Culturebox