Notes on a royal scandal – Lully’s Isis

A couple of months ago, we released a recording of Gounod’s Faust in its first version – repertoire previously outside our normal sphere but an eye-opening experience nonetheless. Now we have returned to the home patch - French baroque - with the release of our eighth Lully opera recording, Isis.

The Florentine dancer Lully had been brought over to the Court of Versailles and quickly rose to a position of great intimacy with Louis XIV who shared tastes in music, ballet and mythology. He was given the task of creating French opera with the purpose of glorifying the Sun King’s reign. But his seventh opera, Isis, soon became associated with a royal scandal. Quinault’s libretto, based on ancient Roman and Egyptian mythology, relates the story of Jupiter pursuing the nymph Io, much to the annoyance of his wife Juno – who imprisons and tortures the nymph. In choosing such a subject, Quinault alluded, unintentionally or otherwise, to Louis XIV’s love affairs with two mistresses – Madame de Montespan, the King’s long favourite, and Mademoiselle de Ludres. Audiences immediately associated Juno with Madame de Montespan and Io with Madame de Ludres.

The historical relevance of music commissioned for the Court of Versailles is immediately enthralling - with all the intrigues of the royal household. Whether in the realm of mythological gods, of the baroque court or of today’s governing class, power always breeds vanity and sexual peccadillos. This provides ideal fodder for tragedy on a grand scale. And it’s the psychology of these characters which I most seek out - to show the human emotions at the heart of this amazing music.

During the opera, Io sings of her fall from grace, abandoned by Jupiter into a series of torturous ordeals designed by his vengeful wife Juno.

“I'm no longer in his memory,

He can't hear my cries nor see my tears.

Having delivered me to the cruellest misfortunes,

He is calm, at the height of his glory,

He abandons me in the midst of my pain.”

(Io, Act V)

The opera itself is masterful, engaging and witty. It seduces at every turn. Lully provides a catalogue of human passions – and reflecting on it makes you think about your own nature. Stories can go out of fashion, but human emotions stay the same. At the heart of the opera is the conflict between Jupiter, Juno and Isis with jealousy as the driving impetus of the drama. Both female protagonists deal with their love of the same man in different ways – Juno choose a violent course of revenge, Io, abandoned and forgotten, laments her loss.

My overriding objective is to find the human aspect of the drama – not merely as a conductor but also as a dramaturge. I always say to my singers that unfortunately I don’t have their voices but I want them to find human expression and inhabit their characters, just as Maria Callas embodied her roles: Norma, Lucia and more. No matter how arcane the plot is, it always comes back to human beings and human relationships.

This all starts with the text – it is not to show off a beautiful voice, but to deliver the drama. It’s imperative to understand what each word means and I insist on this, especially in Lully’s operas which rely so heavily on declamation. In this recording I am blessed with a completely Francophone cast, which is essential for capturing Lully’s wit. In Act IV, Io is tortured by freezing cold, blazing heat and starvation, but there is humour because Lully lets us see the scene through Juno’s gloating eyes. The chorus’s shivering music in Act IV would later inspire Purcell in King Arthur, Vivaldi and more.

For me, opera is a dream turned in reality: visuals, movement, music and words. Music should make you forget about time – it overrides it, even when an aria is 12 minutes long or an opera takes three hours. A da capo aria is never a mere repeat of first theme, because in contrast with the second theme, the first section is irretrievably altered. Even when an aria repeats a text, it still shows another facet of that emotional world.

Just as in life, events shape us and change our souls and we can never go back to our original state. Theatre mirrors life, and so it was at Versailles, only there, life began to mirror theatre.

In the libretto, Quinault has Neptune sing:

“Mon Empire a servi de Théâtre à la guerre Publiez des exploits nouveaux
C’est le même vainqueur si fameux sur la Terre Qui triomphe encore sur les eaux.“

(“My empire has served as the theatre of war;

Proclaim new exploits:

The same victor, so famous on land,

Now triumphs once more on the seas.”)

History would play out as Quinault had imagined, with Mademoiselle de Ludres soon banished to a convent. Scandal ensued at the premiere. Quinault paid for it with a two-year expulsion from the Court. Following its first public performances in Paris, Isis was revived only once more in Louis XIV’s lifetime.

Isis is available on Aparté. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques revive Lully’s Isis in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées on December 6, at Opéra Royal in Versailles on December 10 and Théâter an der Wien on February 22.

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques return to Wigmore Hall on December 17 for a Noël Royal of motets by Charpentier. Visit

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