Véronique Gens, Caroline Mutel, Cécile Achille, Romain Bockler, Mathias Vidal, Nicolas Courjal; Les Nouveaux Caractères/Sébastien d’Hérin
Château de Versailles CVS085 155:16 mins (2 discs)
This is the first full recording of a stage work by Henri Desmarets (1661-1741) –also known as Henry Desmarest. Once seen as Lully’s likely successor in the musical service of Louis XIV, Desmarets was exiled into obscurity after eloping with his noble employer’s teenage daughter. The crisp dances, vibrant choruses and luminous airs of his pre-exile opera Circé are beguiling, but the score is uneven. Dances unroll in succession with too few choruses to break them up. Characters acquire musical shape only in the second half. Partly to blame is the libretto, a version of Homer’s tale abounding in subplots and amourous stereotypes. While the sorceress Circé erotically ensnares the hero Ulysses until his true love Éolie effects his escape, Astérie stays loyal to her beloved and spurns the importunate Elphénor, who kills himself. And so on.
Véronique Gens is incandescent in the title role, building subtly to the opera’s last scene in which a despairing Circé destroys her kingdom with a clattering orchestral rush. Gens’s dark hues, femme fatale swagger and willingness to take risks all hit their mark, musically and dramatically; Cécile Achille’s charming transparency and bright execution as Éolie are their perfect foil. The mix of muscle and burning lyricism in Mathias Vidal’s Ulysses is truly sexy. Not every soloist delivers: Caroline Mutel (Astérie) tends to sidle up to her pitches and the vibrato and acting of Nicolas Courjal (Elphénor) are for me too broad.
Yet the choir’s exuberance is infectious. Conductor Sébastien d’Hérin and the band brilliantly paint the scenes. Especially for the Baroque-curious, Desmarets and this recording have much to offer.