LULLY: Phaeton (complete opera) – Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Phaeton)/ Ingrid Perruche (Clymene)/ Isabelle Druet (Theone, Astree)/ Gaelle Arquez (Libye)/ Choeur de Chambre de Namur/ Les Talens Lyriques/ Christophe Rousset – Aparte AP061 (2 CDs), 2:33:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Phaeton is a dramatic lyrical opera with a prologue and five acts by Jean-Baptiste Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault, who took the story from a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was the eighth such collaboration between the two, designed in this case for performance at the new palace at Versailles, and with a moral message completely in accordance with the royal dignity and grace of the “Sun King”, Louis IV. It played for well over a year and was revised countless times in the next 70 years, becoming known as the “people’s opera”.

The plot is more involves and tinkered with than the basic story found in Ovid because of a desire to “humanize” Phaëton, and add a love interest. Our anti-hero is the reckless son of Helios and the ocean nymph Clymene, and leaves his lover Theona because of his ambition for the hand of Libya, daughter of the king of Egypt. On the day of the wedding, Libya’s angry lover Epaphus, who is a son of Jupiter, disputes Phaëton’s claim to being divine. Phaëton, who has an obsessive need to prove himself, drives the sun-chariot for one day with permission of his father. The ride works out badly, with horses completely out of control due to the substandard driving, which threatens the earth with destructive fire. Jupiter, in order to save the world, strikes the chariot down with a thunderbolt, and Phaëton falls to his death.

A plot like this in a brand new royal theater allowed for all sorts of technological innovations and thrills for the audience, as well as multiple injections of divertissements, giving Lully the chance to show off his stuff. The opera, having assumed such popular proportions over time, was a big hit right from the start, and King and populace agreed as to its merits, making it one of the most important pieces he ever composed, and helping to cement his reputation as one of the two or three greatest composers of his generation.

The cast is uniformly excellent, while Rousset, abandoning his harpsichord for the podium, leads a spirited and lively performance of much conviction. The sound is excellent stereo, and while such a gangbusters opera would have been a perfect vehicle for surround sound we must be grateful for what we get. Minkowski on Erato is the only real competition at the moment, and his is a fine reading as well. Those who love Baroque opera find a lot of enjoyment here.

—Steven Ritter