“A warm welcome to the first opera by Lully to appear on DVD. Staged performances of his tragédies lyriques being rare, at least in the UK, it's good to be able at last to assess one of them as a drama. Persée, to a libretto by Philippe Quinault, Lully's usual collaborator, was first performed in 1682, a year before Phaëton. As with all such works the purpose was to flatter, none too subtly, the person and the reign of Louis XIV; indeed, the subject was chosen by the Sun King himself, and the sycophantic composer made an explicit comparison between Louis and Perseus in the dedication.
The story, taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, is a conflation of two legends: Perseus' slaying of Medusa and his rescue of Andromeda. Cassiopeia has incurred the wrath of Juno, who sends Medusa to terrorise the country. With Medusa dead, Juno causes Cassiopeia's daughter, the princess Andromeda, to be chained to a rock at the mercy of a monster. Perseus swoops from the sky to kill the monster, Venus descends as a dea ex machina to take the hero, his beloved and her parents up to heaven, and everybody lives happily ever after. Everybody, that is, except for Merope, fruitlessly in love with Perseus, who dies accidentally; and Phineus, Andromeda's betrothed, whom Perseus turns to stone with Medusa's head.
As a drama, then, there's not much going for Persée, especially as Perseus benefits from divine assistance: a sword from Vulcan, a shield from Athena, a helmet from Pluto, not to mention the presence of Mercury, who sends Medusa to sleep. But there's much pleasure to be had from the choral and balletic contributions to the divertissements and from individual scenes.
This production from Toronto is dressed and choreographed in traditional style and the direction is both lively and respectful, the characters encouraged to gesture expressively. Monica Whicher and Alain Coulombe are good as the disappointed lovers; Olivier Laquerre, stentorian as Andromeda's father, has a fine old time camping up the transvestite role of Medusa. Cyril Auvity's Perseus, rather pinched in tone, is outsung by Colin Ainsworth's Mercury, who is nonsensically given a solo belonging to one of the mortals.
Hervé Niquet is a sympathetic conductor, moving seamlessly through recitative, air and ensemble; the orchestra suffers from a recorded balance that favours the theorbo.
A short scene for Medusa's fellow Gorgons is pointlessly cut. The entire allegorical Prologue is omitted, too; no great loss, perhaps, but it should have been mentioned in the booklet. But let's not end on a carping note: this enterprising issue is cause for celebration.”