- Tragédie en musique in a prologue and 5 acts
- Composer : Jean-Baptiste Lully
- Libretto : Philippe Quinault, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses
- First performed : Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 5 January 1677
This is for Pieter, who requested ISIS after Christophe Rousset’s recording came out last year.
Isis – nicknamed “l’opéra des musiciens” – contains one of Lully’s most famous, most imitated passages: a chorus stuttering as they tremble with cold. But the work met a frosty reception. In this story of the unfortunate nymph Io, loved by the king of the gods, harassed by his jealous wife, the court gossips thought they recognized allusions to Louis XIV himself and his amours.
Pretty young Marie-Élisabeth de Ludres had caught the monarch’s wandering eye, just as Io had Jupiter’s here. Mme de Montespan, the maîtresse-en-titre, gave a moue of disgust; she thought this opera was rather low. The librettist had taken the bull by the horns; he had mocked the king and his mistress. Stung by the gadfly of jealousy and wounded self-pride, she sent Ludres away from court, called a halt to the performances, and sent the librettist Quinault away from the court in disgrace. His exile would last two years; by the end of 1677, however, Montespan’s own position tottered. The Affair of the Poisons would implicate her in witchcraft, murder, and attempted regicide.
Isis may not have achieved the popularity of some of Lully’s other operas, but it is one of his most inventive and enjoyable scores. As a composer, the founder of French opera was less a dramatist than a scene-painter. His gift was for ingenious descriptions of nature and the supernatural, for spectacle combining dance and chorus. In his operas, we find battles, giants, monsters, nymphs, storms, sleep scenes, incantations, and transformations. Emotional intensity and passion are his weak points (until the very late Armide); too often, the stories and recitative are tedious.
Isis was Lully’s fifth opera, after the awkward Cadmus et Hermione (1673), the Italianate Alceste (1674) and Thésée (1675), and the tragedy Atys (1676). There is little plot in Isis – even in the 17th century, critics complained Quinault’s libretto lacked action – but it contains a splendid series of divertissements: descents of gods, pastoral dances, snowy wastes, furnaces, Fates, and Egyptian ceremonies.
“On the threshold of his second period,” Laurencie writes, “Lully dreamt of varying the spectacle, harmoniously associating the picturesque, the comic, and the tragic. Isis overflows with the picturesque: the lament that rises from the reeds, the forge of the Cyclops, the alert dynamism of the hunt. Add to that the spice of a comic note, but a moderate and almost academic comedy where the trio of the tremblers contrasts with the pathetic, sombre trio of the Fates.”
The Prologue celebrates the naval victories of the admirals Jean Bart and Abraham Duquesne over the French and Spanish in 1676. Neptune and his tritons praise Louis XIV, the conqueror of sea and land, then Apollo and the Muses stage a lavish entertainment for the monarch.
Act I takes place in an agreeable countryside through which the river Inachus flows. This act is largely expository. Io is the river’s daughter. Although her father and Juno want her to marry Hierax, she has a new lover: Jupiter himself. The act ends with an impressive chorus and the god’s descent from Olympus.
At the start of Act II, the stage is darkened by dense clouds – sent by Jupiter to protect Io from Juno’s jealous gaze. Mercury tries to distract Iris, the queen of heaven’s companion, but doesn’t deceive her. Juno arrives, and chooses Io as a nymph for her court – secretly plotting vengeance. The scene changes to the Gardens of Hebe; a divertissement includes the nymphs’ exquisite duet (‘Aimez, profitez du temps’) and chorus (‘Que ces lieux ont d’attraits’).
Juno has set the hundred-eyed Argus to guard Io. Act III is set near his home: a lake in the middle of a forest. To rescue Io, Mercure organizes another splendid divertissement: an opera within the opera, telling the story of Syrinx, another nymph tragically loved by a god. The goat-legged Pan, wild god of the woods, pursued Syrinx; to protect her from his lust, she was transformed into reeds. The sorrowing god then made a musical instrument – his famous panpipes – from her. The sequence ranks with the ensembles in Atys and the plainte italienne in Psyché as one of Lully’s most inspired scenes. It includes choruses and dances for nymphs, shepherds, and satyrs; a shepherds’ duet; a vigorous hunting chorus; and Pan’s lament (considered Lully’s masterpiece), the flutes representing the reedpipes. The divertissement lulls Argus to sleep so Mercure can rescue Io – but Hierax wakes his brother, and the siblings call on Juno for help. Mercure strikes Argus dead, and turns Hierax into a bird of prey. The furious Juno then transforms Argus’s body into a peacock, and summons a Fury to pursue her rival.
Act IV, one might say, is a song of ice and fire. The first scene is the freezing wastes of Scythia; it contains the famous trembling chorus (‘L’hiver qui nous tormente’), with its stuttering quavers on the same notes. The piece influenced Purcell (King Arthur), Bach (his Magnificat), and Vivaldi (Four Seasons).
The scene changes to the furnaces of the Chalybes, cheerfully singing (‘Tôt, tôt, tôt!’) as they forge steel. The act ends in the caverns of the Fates. Their followers War, Famine, Fire, Flood, and Illnesses sing a jolly chorus as they delight in taking human lives. The Parcae command Io to placate Juno if she wants her suffering to end; their melancholy trio influenced Rameau’s great number in Hippolyte et Aricie.
Io’s wanderings take her to Egypt; Act V takes place on the banks of the Nile. The nymph prays to Jupiter to end her torments, then collapses. The god tells her he cannot go against destiny, but will share her woes. Jupiter persuades Juno to end her vengeance; the couple reunite. Her ordeal over, Io becomes the goddess Isis, and the divinities and Egyptians welcome the new deity. (Why Isis, one wonders? In the original Greek myth, Io is transformed into a heifer, poor cow. Surely Hathor would have been more fitting?)
Court politics aside, the opera was poorly received. While musicians admired Lully’s skill, the public thought the music was too learned. The hostile La Fontaine thought Lully was wrung out, forced to repeat himself. Isis was performed in Paris later that year, then resurrected in 1704, 1717–18, and 1732–33. “The piece had appeared cold and lacking action,” Boinvin wrote in 1717, “but a perfect performance drew attention to the beauties of the music, covering the defects of the poetry.” It was also the first opera produced in the Netherlands (Amsterdam, 1677); its first German production took place at Regensburg in 1688.
LISTEN TO: Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Io), Cyril Auvity, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Philippe Estephe, Ambroisine Bré, Bénédicte Tauran, Fabien Hyon, Aimery Lefevre, and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, with Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Paris, 2019, Aparté.
- Pascal Denécheau, “Isis, ‘l’opéra des musiciens'”, article accompanying Rousset / Aparte Isis
- Lionel de la Laurencie, Les maîtres de la musique : Lully, 2nd edition, Paris : Librairie Félix Alcan, 1919
- “Isis”, Opéra Baroque < https://operabaroque.fr/LULLY_ISIS.htm>