LECLAIR Scylla et Glaucus
In Homer, it is Circe who warns Odysseus of the perils of steering his ship between two rocks: one the home of Scylla, a six-headed monster given to snatching sailors from passing vessels; the other occupied by Charybdis, who causes whirlpools that drag entire crews to their death. But this opera is drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it’s Circe herself who brings about the dreadful fate of Scylla, an innocent nymph.
Leclair’s only opera was performed at the Paris Opéra in October 1746. The singers included Marie Fel and Pierre de Jélyotte, the stars of many of Rameau’s operas; the dancers included the equally Ramellian La Camargo. It ran for 18 performances, after which it disappeared. The Prologue surprisingly glorifies Louis XV and the Dauphin; we could be back in the days of Lully and the Sun King. The story is a simple one. Scylla is indifferent to love: she rejects the approach of a shepherd and a sylvan, despite the advocacy of the chorus, and is angered when Glaucus tries the same tack. Glaucus turns to Circe for help. The sorceress, smitten, immediately seeks to enchant him and vows vengeance when, after nearly succumbing, Glaucus dashes off. Scylla decides that she loves him after all, but she is poisoned by the unforgiving Circe. The last scene shows the Straits of Messina, with Charybdis and the transformed Scylla; Circe flies off, uttering curses.
The libretto is serviceable, but the plotting shows signs of inexperience. Circe’s ministers bewitch Glaucus at leisure, but it only takes two words from his friend Lichas to recall him to his senses; and his response to Scylla’s metamorphosis verges on the perfunctory. The music, though, is excellent and deserves to be better known. The vivid orchestral writing includes rushing scales as Circe does her worst, a musette (the dance) with a musette (the bagpipe), and ear-tickling hemiolas, where the rhythmic pulse cuts across the bar-lines. The harmonic language is effective, too: a surprising interrupted cadence, for instance, makes clear Glaucus’s true feelings.
Les Nouveaux Caractères under Sébastien d’Hérin sing and play splendidly. Anders J Dahlin, an old hand in this repertoire, is in excellent voice. Emőke Barath catches the tender and the fiery sides to Scylla’s character perfectly, and Caroline Mutel’s summoning of the infernal deities is as gripping as Véronique Gens’s on the latter’s first ‘Tragédiennes’ CD (Virgin, 8/06). The booklet is attached to the set, making the whole thing unwieldy, and the libretto-cum-translation doesn’t mark the track numbers. Such annoyances are not serious enough to preclude a wholehearted recommendation.