An entertainment at the court of Louis XIV was meant to dazzle the spectators
and to celebrate the king’s power and accomplishments. If he could be linked with the
Greek gods so much the better. The myth of Cupid and Psyche offered the creators of
The 1678 tragédie-lyrique, Psyché—composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, librettist Thomas Corneille, and probably dancing master Pierre Beauchamp—everything the form required.
In the splendidly staged Boston Early Music Festival production of this proto-opera, you can appreciate the entrancing ways in which singing and dancing complement each other to hymn the power of love. Great Barrington’s scrupulously restored Mahaiwe Theater, (where the BEMF and the Berkshire Opera Company brought the production after its Boston performances) is not as grand as the 17th-century theater in the Palais Royal, but deities do fly down from Mount Olympus, and zephyrs waft about. There are no elaborate changes of scenery, but Caleb Wertenbaker’s elegant setting, consisting of tall, clipped hedges and immense, airy gates that fold back to open, works for every act and frames the baroque splendor of Anna Watkins’s costumes. The 36 members of the orchestra (including musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs on theorbo and Baroque guitar) may find the space between the Mahaiwe’s stage and the front row cramped, but it’s hard to imagine the Sun King’s Académie Royale de Musique instrumentalists playing any better.
The tale of love, jealousy, vanity, ordeal, and redemption resonates against several other myths—Orpheus and Eurydice, Ceres and Proserpina, Pandora and her box. Vénus, jealous of Psyché’s much-praised beauty, orders her son, L’Amour, to use his arrows to make the girl fall in love with someone very unpleasant. Instead, L’Amour himself falls in love, saves Psyché from being sacrificed to a ravening Serpent in order to bring peace to the land, and orders Vulcain, Vénus’s spouse, to build a magnificent palace for her. But he warns her (while disguised as a handsome man) that she must never know who he really is or seek to see him in his true form.
The infuriated Vénus pays a visit, also in disguise, and, building on Psyché curiosity to know her lover’s identity, hands her a lamp to spy on his slumber. Pfft! Up flies L’Amour, now a little winged boy. Vénus then orders Psyché to the Underworld to fetch Proserpina’s box of beauty secrets. With help from sympathetic Mercure, the mission is accomplished. Once above ground again, Psyché can’t resist opening the box (maybe she is looking a bit jaded…). Just as Vénus is rejoicing over her recumbent victim, Jupiter intercedes. L’Amour, deprived of his beloved, has stopped aiming his arrows, and a serious population shrinkage may ensue. Since, like many a mother, Vénus can’t imagine any human girl being good enough for her son, Jupiter instantly makes Psyché immortal, and ordains a Feast of the Gods to celebrate the power of love.
All this is revealed in ravishing songs, instrumental passages, and dances. Lully’s harmonies could break your heart, as when, in the Prologue, Vertumne, god of trees and fruits (tenor Jason McStoots) and Palemon, god of waters (baritone Matthew Shaw) join their voices to vaunt tender-heartedness over beauty. Or when countertenor Ricard Bordas, tenor Douglas Williams, and soprano Yulia Van Doren lament together the prospect of Psyché’s appointment with the Serpent (for some reason, they do this in Italian instead of French like the rest of the work—certainly the reiterated Italian word “crudeltà” sounds more tragic than “cruauté”). The only principal singers who don’t play multiple roles—Karina Gauvin as Vénus and Carolyn Sampson as Psyché—sing wonderfully, shaping their soprano voices to bring out the former’s fury and the latter’s innocence.
Jake Wilder-Smith as Cupid and Carolyn Sampson as Psyche
photo: Andre Costantini
The dancers usually represent followers of the various gods and embellish their activities. Most of their many entrées, choreographed by British Baroque dance specialist Lucy Graham, are in the courtly style that contemporary scholars have resurrected from dance manuals and from the notations published in 1700 by Raoul Feuillet. The eight adult dancers and the four little girls who portray miniature cupids weave their pretty patterns with small, springy steps and a gentle rise and fall of breath—their bodies erect, their arms and wrists tracing gracious little circles, as if to flip a lace cuff out of the way. Gilles Poirier is especially fine in a last-act solo in which he represents Architecture, and in his subsequent duet with Melinda Sullivan as Painting. Less detailed evidence exists about the “grotesque” dances of 17th century opera, probably performed by professional acrobats and comedians. Graham’s versatile adult performers double as Vulcan’s masked, anvil-banging squad and the chained-together demons who slog along through the red-lit Underworld, thrusting their hands through the closed gates to reach for Psyché.
A great deal of credit for the delights of the production must go to stage director Gilbert Blin. A three-hour spectacle with so much courtly repetition could easily seem static. Without seriously violating Baroque practice, Blin adds subtle touches that bring nuance to the proceedings. Four young men billed as supernumeraries not only open and close gates, they pay attention to the action—making futile “please stop!” gestures like a silent and impotent Greek chorus, as Psyché considers opening the box, The lovely voices of Psyché’s sisters, Aglaure and Cidippe, belie their words; they’re not too distressed about the muche-admired Pysché becoming dinner for the Serpent. Blin’s staging underscores their meanness by having soprano Amanda Forsythe and mezzo Mireille Lebel jostle each other for position. He gives Vulcain’s assistants a comically hapless eagerness about carrying out the orders sung out by their lame master (a wonderful performance, both physically and vocally by Colin Baltzer).
Another refreshingly witty touch involves the male singers who play the Furies (McStoots, tenor Zachary Wilder, and tall bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre.) Dressed in black hoopskirted gowns, they scuttle around, bump into one another, and have little hissy fits, while remembering to repeat like a broken record their dismal refrain, “There is no mercy in Hell.” And it is surely Blin’s direction, as well as the singers’ skill that emphasizes Gauvin’s wavering between fury and self-doubt and Sampson’s sweet naiveté.
The peace that is celebrated in the Prologue refers to a hiatus in Louis’ European land grab, and the theme of love is linked to his passion for his mistress, Mme. De Montespan. Love lies behind both Psyché’s downfall and her rescue. Vénus and Vulcain confront each other and debate romantic love versus married love. The final celebratory act with text by Philippe Quinault (brought forward from a 1671 Psyché, which Lully concocted with his longtime collaborator Molière), introduces the gods themselves to affirm the power of love. “Remove Love from Nature,” sings Mercure,”and all Nature perishes.” Bacchus admits that love outlasts a drunken revel; Momus says it is the one thing he will not mock in his satires; Mars states that love is the single power that can conquer him . And through the singing thread the dancers—as Apollon’s muses and arts, as revellers, comedians, soldiers.
In the end, this charming. living relic of another century sails into our hearts, borne not only by the beautiful music, but by timeless truths about human nature.