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Lully: Roland

Robert Levine

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Lully’s 1685 Roland, on a subject apparently chosen by Louis XIV–its message is that loyalty to one’s country and fighting battles is more important and noble than earthly love–was a great hit and played on-and-off in France and other European countries until 1750. The plot involves Angelique’s vacillating love for Médor. She vacillates due to the fact that Médor is of “obscure lineage” and therefore beneath her station. He has undying, wild love for her. Roland adores Angelique also, but while she admires his knightliness, she is otherwise not interested. After Médor threatens suicide, Angelique gives in; they marry to great festivity at the close of Act 3.

In the last two acts all the attention is on Roland. He is seen with his pal Astolfe, who tries to reason with him. Roland discovers some writings on the wall of a grotto celebrating the love of Angélique and Médor and he falls into despair, and when a village wedding party passes by they happily tell him of the lovers’ departure. Roland becomes enraged and then insane. In the last act, Astolfe summons Logistille, the wise fairy, and she puts Roland to sleep. Logistille sends for the ghosts of dead heroes to urge Roland on to action, glory, and war; when he awakens he is sane and ashamed of his previous weakness. With the encouragement of Terror, Glory, and Fame he races toward his country to do battle as the ghosts sing “Today cast off forever/The shameful bonds of love”.

This recording, made during live performances in Lausanne in January, 2004, is exciting, thoroughly idiomatic, and energetic as led by Christophe Rousset. French Baroque opera, which was not meant for the general public, its format filled with dance music and odd mixtures of recitative, arioso, and brief aria, was bizarrely specific to its time and place and is not easy to “sell”. Of course, its artifice is part of (perhaps most of) its appeal–it’s as precious as a Fabergé egg. The dance and purely orchestral interludes are sometimes woven into the drama and sometimes not. The glorious Chaconne that closes Act 3, in which the happy couple is praised and entertained, is a plugged-in interlude, and it also works somewhat dramatically–but it is so ravishing that it doesn’t really have to. And the scene in the fourth act, in which Roland comes upon the bucolic wedding party and learns of Angélique’s elopement, is the perfect pairing of drama and divertissement. They are as crucial as the occasional emotion-filled scene, usually a solo for an angry, bereft, vengeful, wicked, or insane character, of which Roland’s Mad Scene at the end of Act 4 is one. The maniacal, dark, runaway-train continuo with which it begins is remarkable, and unique; it is Lully at his best.

Anna-Maria Panzarella’s Angelique is just about ideal, singing with a combination of elegance and plangency, with a flexible, genuinely pretty voice. Her uncertainty is vividly enough expressed to make us care. As her confidante, Témire, Monique Zanetti is both sympathetic and strong–and she also sings beautifully. Tenor Olivier Dumait sings Médor with a bit of effort, but his lovesickness may call for such nuance. The role of Roland is a pip–once he takes over in the fourth act he almost never stops–and his passion, disappointment, then anger and insane rage, which give way in the last act to genuinely heroic utterance, are stunningly handled by bass Nicolas Testé. Every so often a low note escapes him, but overall his is a grand portrayal. Salome Haller’s singing of Logistille’s music is ravishing, and the rest of the cast is superb. The highest praise goes to Rousset’s Les Talens Lyrique and the busy Lausanne Opera chorus. The former’s strings attack with verve and true drama, punctuated by the rare entrance of oboes, flutes, and a bassoon, and the latter colors the text as effectively as the soloists. This is a magnificent achievement. [7/2/2004]

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