Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (1703 55) was the master of music at the Paris Opéra during the early 1730s, a leading light of the city’s famous Concert Spirituel, had a heated public argument with Rameau in 1742, and later got on the wrong side of Voltaire. Musicologist and harpsichordist Lisa Goode Crawford has instigated this ambitious recording of Pyrrhus (1730), Royer’s only tragédie lyrique. It was the last in a series of more than 20 works created for Paris across four decades that depicted episodes from the Trojan war – although French literary tradition evolved these stories far from Euripedes: the Trojan princess Polyxena (the youngest daughter of King Priam) kills herself because she is irrevocably torn between duty to her defeated people and secret love for Pyrrhus (the son of Achilles, whose angry ghost proclaims Polyxena’s doom). The action is complicated by the machinations of the evil sorceress Eriphile (who has been promised to Pyrrhus) and the Greek warrior Acamas (who wants Polyxena for himself).
In this performance the choir sopranos sing distractingly flat at times but the band play with soft assurance, and the oboes and bassoon are particularly poignant in the rondeau and menuets during the prologue for Mars and Minerva. The union of drama and music heats up when the jilted sorceress Eriphile and the forlorn Acamas forge their uneasy alliance during Act 2: flutes adorn Acamas’s futile expression of hope (‘Charmant espoir’), sung sweetly by Jeffrey Thompson. The conclusions to acts are the most memorable musical set-pieces: the closing sections of Act 3 present Eriphile’s bitter confrontation with Pyrrhus and climaxes with her summoning the Eumenides (the Deities of Vengeance) to wreak vengeance on her rival. At the end of the opera, Emmanuelle de Negri conveys tragic nobility in Polyxena’s inexorable suicide. Anyone hoping for something on a par with Rameau will be disappointed; but this accomplished performance reveals that Royer endeavoured to advance French tragic opera beyond its Lully esque roots.