Gramophone Editor's Choice
Everyone thinks that they know Alceste by Lully, and yet this 1674 masterpiece has almost never been recorded in its entirety. Apart from the Malgoire version from 1975 with Bruce Brewer and Felicity Palmer, which is starting to become outdated, the real treat is a second versoin by the same Malgoire twenty years later with Jean-Philippe Lafont and Colette Alliot-Lugaz... And so we can only take our hats off to the new discographical opus from Christophe Rousset's Talens Lyriques, a lively and elegant reading which allows us to rediscover everything that was so innovative about this brilliant, effervescent Florentine, who would become a typical Versaillais, a courtesan and a wheeler-dealer. King Louis XIV - 36 years old, still with all his own teeth and a victorious war leader - could only feel flattered by the piece signed by Quinault: Alcide, who covets the beautiful Alceste (who has been promised to Admetus), is none other than Hercules himself - Louis XIV seeing himself in Hercules saving the beautiful Madame de Montespan from the clutches of her husband.
To be sure, in this opera, Admetus/Hercules magnanimously hands Alceste, whom he has saved from hell, to her husband, while the poor Mr Montespan would end his career and his life exiled in Gascony... Honour intact. The Sun King loved the work, to the point that he commanded that rehearsals be held at Versailles. According to Madame de Sévigné, "The King declared that if he found himself in Paris when it was performed, he would go to see it every night." That being said, if Alceste suited the tastes of the court, it didn't do so well in Paris, where Lully's enemies, jealous of the extravagant privileges that he had won (the exclusive right to "have sung any whole piece in France, wither in French verse or in other languages, without the written permission of said Sir Lully, on pain of a ten thousand livre fine, and confiscation of theatres, equipment, decorations, costumes..."), heaped plot upon plot, while the gallant Mercury sang his little couplet: Dieu ! Le bel opéra ! Rien de plus pitoyable ! Cerbère y vient japper d'un aboi lamentable ! Oh ! Quelle musique de chien ! Oh ! Quelle musique du diable ! [Lord!/Fine opera!/There's nothing so pitiable!/Cerberus is yapping, his howls lamentable!/What doggish music!/What devilish music!]. Posterity would decide otherwise, and Rousset proved it triumphantly. © SM/Qobuz