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Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques transport audiences to the stage of the Royal Academy of Music where Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pygmalion was first performed in 1748. This opera in the form of an acte de ballet was inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses. It tells the story of the sculptor Pygmalion, who falls in love with his own creation. He appeals to the gods to bring her to life, and when his wish is granted, the statue of the beautiful woman falls in love with her creator. Considered to be one of Rameau's greatest successes, the music of this tender and mischievous ballet is filled with the grace of 18th century dances and like Pygmalion's creation, Christophe Rousset new breathes life into this score.
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From the start the playing is sharp, springy, as pointed as can be. The overture's fast section is taken at breakneck speed. The orchestra sound beautiful, their very fine instrumental quality nicely captured in the recording. Soloists are excellent on the whole. Tenor Cyrille Dubois, in the very demanding role of Pygmalion, has a fabulous vocal quality, is spot-on in the high notes and very expressive. At times he finds it hard to keep up in the rapid runs in 'Règne, Amour', but this doesn't stop him adding some fabulous embellishments to his part. His voice also cuts nicely through the choral sound in 'L'Amour triomphe'.
Marie-Claude Chappuis, as the sculptor's jilted conventional love Céphise, is superb, with a lovely rich mezzo voice. Unfortunately she doesn't have a lot to do, since her character storms off early on in the proceedings, unaccountably miffed at the sculptor's preference for his statue over herself. Scene 3, the awakening of the statue, is delicate and captivating; Céline Scheen, in the role of the statue, is a bit shrill here, but very stylish and accurate.
Orchestra and direction are terrific throughout; it's hard for the listener to keep still during the fabulous closing Contredanse. Booklet notes are excellent, and text and translation are provided. Choosing a filler to accompany the 45-minute 'Pygmalion' has long proved a problem since the advent of the CD era. Rousset's solution is to add the instrumental suite from 'Les Fêtes de Polymnie'. The overture brings a slow, subdued start which contrasts effectively with the rumbustious finale of 'Pygmalion', and the rich orchestration in the ten movements, with trumpets and drums, adds to the variety. It's not an ideal coupling, but it's OK.
There are other excellent versions of 'Pygmalion', including those directed by Hervé Niquet and William Christie. The present Rousset recording, however, joins my own other two favourites – namely Gustav Leonhardt's and the one from the New York-based Concert Royal orchestra directed by James Richman. If I were forced to choose one, I think it would be Richman.