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GRAMOPHONE (11/2023)
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 CPO 555594-2

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Reviewer :
 David Vickers

Hot on the heels of the first recording of Desmarest’s Circé (1694) by Les Nouveaux Caractères comes Boston Early Music Festival’s mostly North American cast recorded in Bremen in January 2023. Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs present nearly 45 minutes more music than Sébastien d’Hérin, whose ‘premiere’ recording must have been surreptitiously cut down. All sorts of aspects of the plot and musical features emerge far more effectively.


The Ouverture has graceful momentum and a sure sense of textures. Margaret Carpentier Haigh’s La Nymphe de la Seine, dryads and naiads perform the prologue affectionately; percussion in a pair of lively bourrées balances rhythmical effects within an attuned musicality from the entire orchestra (on the other hand, a canarie in Act 1 is dominated by loud castanets). Lucile Richardot achieves emotive solemnity and a foreboding of jealous tragedy in Circé’s paean to love. Fearing (rightly) that the entrapped Ulysse secretly still loves Éolie, the sorceress turns his Greek compatriots into monsters, but she attempts to soothe his dismay by transforming her island into a beautiful garden for loving pleasures – a seductive divertissement led softly by high tenor Brian Giebler and the svelte chorus of ‘fortunate gentlemen’ and ‘contended ladies’. Aaron Sheehan’s lightly suave Ulisse persuades Circé to restore his men to human form – and he sings poetically in the hero’s soliloquy that reveals his anguish at dissembling attraction to the cruel sorceress. The restoration of the Greeks to human form is a cheerful divertissement at ironic odds with the unsettled plights of all of the main characters, although in its midst there is a deus ex machina for Cupid (sung cheerfully by Danielle Reutter-Harrah), who announces that by the end of the day Circé shall know the truth of Ulisse’s heart.


On arriving at the island, Éolie’s pastoral chaconne has gently rolling contours that are realised gorgeously by Amanda Forsythe and the orchestra. Beguiling recorders and shaded bass also feature in Ulisse’s sommeil (Act 3 scene 3), in which the sleeping hero is visited consolingly by An Agreeable Dream (Kyle Stegall), Phantase (Jason McStoots) and Phæbetor (Michael Galvin), before ominous dreams rouse him into paying attention to Minerve’s warning that he must leave the island. There is also plenty of fine singing and acting in the parallel love triangle between Teresa Wakim’s bright-toned Astérie, Douglas Williams’s nobly ardent Polite and Jesse Blumberg’s treacherous Elphénor.


The vengeful Circé’s Act 4 ombra incantations summoning demons and the Euménides to carry out her nefarious orders is a thrilling tour de force thanks to Richardot’s imperious declamation and vividly responsive strings. Her exhortation for demons to disguise themselves as forest nymphs in order to lull Éolie into a false sense of security is an endearingly tenuous excuse for a divertissement, but it enables Mercure to give Éolie a magical moly flower that defeats all of Circé’s failed attempts to curse Ulisse with insanity and to burn the ships of the escaping Greeks. The convivial celebrations of the North Winds, Tritons and Nereids stands in stark contrast to Richardot’s malevolence and bitterness (and the orchestra’s taut energy) as Circé destroys her island and it sinks beneath the waves. The Bostonians’ insightful musicianship and adroit theatricality enrich our understanding of French opera in the decades between Lully and Rameau.

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