Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Opera of the 1680s by Jean-Baptiste Lully

Persée composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully

The opera Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully  a five-act tragédie lyrique  was originally performed for Louis XIV in 1682. Pierre Corneille had written a drama in 1661 called Andromède, adapting Ovid's ancient story of the rescue of the princess Andromeda from a sea monster by the semi-divine hero Perseus. Twenty years later Philippe Quinault reworked Corneille's play as a libretto and Lully set it to music. They retitled it Persée, adding new characters and including the back-story in which Perseus beheads Medusa. The plot of the opera in fact requires that Perseus face three separate deadly battles (against Medusa, against the sea monster, and against a band of murderers led by an unsuccessful rival for the hand of Andromeda).

The Baroque operas of Handel are basically structured as a succession of solos along a string of half-sung dialogues, only rarely varied with engaged duets or other vocal combinations. Lully's Baroque operas, written earlier and under different cultural conditions, are rich in splendid ensemble singing (as above, where the mother of Andromeda, Queen Cassiopeia (in gold) laments the frustrated love that torments her sister Mérope (in red). Both the court and the public of 1682 delighted in Persée. It continued among the most popular operas of the next century. In 1770 the work was freshly mounted for the opening of the new-built theater at Versailles known as the Opéra Royal. Louis XV had ordered this lavish construction to celebrate the marriage of the Dauphin to the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette.

After the French Revolution, Lully's work for the stage fell entirely out of favor. For a time, the ascendant Republican spirit felt obliged to reject Royalist art (characterized by lofty characters, artificial rhetoric, formal deportment, and expensive trappings). No performances of Persée are recorded anywhere during the 19th or the 20th centuries. Yet in quite recent years the opera has re-entered the world of performance. In 2014 a production even returned to the Opéra Royal at Versailles.

Opéra Royal, Versailles

Opéra Royal, Versailles

Opéra Royal, Versailles

Head of Medusa
oil on canvas, mounted on wood
Uffizi Gallery

Benvenuto Cellini
Head of Medusa
ca. 1545-50
Victoria & Albert Museum

Sebastiano Ricci
Perseus confronting Phineas with the Head of Medusa
ca. 1705-10
oil on canvas
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Jean-Marc Nattier
Perseus under the protection of Minerva turns Phineas to Stone with the Head of Medusa
18th century
oil on canvas
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours

Domenico Fetti
Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster
ca. 1620-22
oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
formerly owned by Charles I of England

Anton Raphael Mengs
Perseus and Andromeda
oil on canvas
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Giorgio Vasari
Perseus and Andromeda
ca. 1572
oil on slate
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Hendrik Goltzius
Perseus and Andromeda
Princeton University Art Museum

Claude Lorrain
Perseus and the origin of Coral
ca. 1671
wash drawing
Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Perseus and Andromeda heeding the advice of Mercury (Toronto, 2004)