237. Phaéton (Lully)

  • Tragédie en musique, in a prologue and 5 acts
  • Composer: Jean-Baptiste Lully
  • Libretto: Philippe Quinault, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • First performed: Versailles, 6 January 1683. First performed in Paris: Théâtre du Palais Royal, Paris, 27 April 1684.

ASTRÉE, goddess, daughter of Jupiter and ThémisSopranoFanchon Moreau
SATURNE, god who reigned during the Golden AgeBass 
LIBYE, daughter of Mérops, king of EgyptSoprano 
THÉONE, daughter of ProtéeSoprano 
CLYMÈNE, daughter of the Ocean and ThétysSoprano 
PHAÉTON, son of the Sun and ClymèneHaute-contreLouis Gaulard Dumesny
TRITON, sea god, Clymène’s brotherHaute-contreClaude Desvoyes
The goddess of the EarthHaute-contre 
LE SOLEIL [The Sun]Haute-contre 
PROTÉE, sea god, Triton’s herdsmanBass 
king of Egypt who has married Clymène, after the death of his first wife, by whom he had Libye
EPAPHUS, son of Jupiter and the goddess IsisBass 
Followers of Triton and Protée;
Egyptians, Ethiopians;
an Egyptian king, an Indian king, tributaries of Mérops;
priestesses of the goddess Isis;
young person chosen to bear the offerings to the temple of Isis;
Furies and terrible spirits;
the Hours of the day;
the Seasons;
Egyptian shepherds and shepherdesses


Rating: 4 out of 5.
Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades. – 
William Shakespeare, RICHARD II

It goes without saying that Phaéton is a warning against the perils of ambition: the title character, obsessed with his own glory, tries to steer the chariot of the Sun (read: the ship of state and the reins of government); finds the task well beyond his meagre abilities; loses control; and is brought to earth with a catastrophic bump. Jupiter blasts him down with a thunderbolt:

Au bien de l’Univers ta perte est nécessaire ;
Sers d’exemple aux audacieux ;
Tombe avec ton orgueil, trébuche, téméraire,
Laisse en paix la Terre, et les Cieux.

That reckless charioteer might have almost wrecked the world in his efforts to win renown, but the opera was so popular it was nicknamed “l’opéra du peuple” – according to Arthur Pougin, because the stage effects astonished the public. The sea god Protée turns himself into a lion, a tree, a sea monster, a fountain, and fire; vengeful Furies invade the temple of Isis; and the last act depicts Phaéton’s disastrous course through the heavens and his fall.

While the opera’s Paris triumph relied on its special effects, it originally premièred at Versailles without any machinery. No matter; the king attended every day. When it reached Paris, in April 1683, it was performed continuously until January 1683, interrupted only by the death of the queen, Marie-Thérèse, in July. Phaéton was reprised six times up to 1742.

After the triumph of Thésée (1675), Racine and Nicolas Boileau wanted to supplant Quinault as Lully’s librettists. They had criticised Alceste (1674); now, they wrote a Chute de Phaéton for Lully. But while they recited it to Louis XIV, Quinault arrived, in tears, and claimed that this was an insult to him. For his part, Lully declared that he would not abandon Quinault. That sealed Boileau’s enmity for Lully.

Lully, however, was hard to please. Twenty times he changed entire scenes that the Académie française had approved, according to Boindin (Lettres historiques sur les spectacles): Quinault had made Phaéton extremely harsh, and abused his discarded girlfriend, Théone; Lully wanted Phaéton to be ambitious but not brutal.

Phaéton was the last of Lully’s operas based on Greek myth; it is a more faithful and dramatic adaptation of the material than, say, Proserpine (1680) or Persée (1682), the previous two operas.

Surprisingly, Pougin thought the dramatic interest was nil. Perhaps it was unsuited to the Romantic 1880s. Pougin thought the story was an unfortunate choice; it was, he wrote, hard to take much interest in the mythological hero, in this cold lover in whom pride stifled all other feeling, who sacrificed his love to the “glory” of steering the chariot of the Sun; even his punishment was not moving.

Piotr Kaminski (Mille et un opéras, 2003), however, was struck by the psychological modernity of Phaéton: “Glory is not an end, but the necessary remedy against the anguish of his own insignificance, not affirmation but confirmation of an uncertain, wavering ‘me’. It is the tragedy of a frustrated heir, cramped in a world that refuses to welcome his exploits, and who invents a completely useless ‘heroic’ death: dying to exist, that is his tragedy.”

Listening to Phaéton this month, I was reminded of another insecure young man with parent issues, and who ends up burning his world: Prince Harry.

Phaeton is one of Lully’s most attractive scores; it does not quite set the world ablaze, but I have listened to it several times over the past week, with pleasure. (Modern recordings do not simply rake over the ashes.) Pougin and Kaminski, 120 years apart, are both struck by its richness and variety. Like his other operas, it is not an opera of big arias and ensembles, but there are magnificent choruses and lively dance rhythms, while Lully’s melodious, gently flowing recitative falls easily on the ear. (Lionel de la Laurencie considers Phaéton an advance in Lully’s accompanied recitative, using all the power of his orchestra.)

The Prologue is, as ever, the most elaborate section of the opera: the splendid overture (YouTube); Astrée’s companions sing and dance gracefully (“Cherchons la Paix dans cet aisle”); Saturn’s return is more upbeat (“Que les Mortels se réjouissent”); there is a spirited Bourrée and dance (“Plaisirs, venez sans crainte”); and the obligatory paean to Louis XIV is splendid (and not too crawly, this time).

The musical interest is often towards the end of each act: Act I features the scene of Protée’s transformation, while Act II finishes with the famous chaconne (YouTube). Act IV, set in the Palace of the Sun, contains the lovely chorus “Sans le Dieu qui nous éclaire”, and the Sun’s impressive oath by the Styx, “C’est toi que j’en atteste”. Epaphus and Libye have two exquisite scenes: “Quel malheur!” (Act II), and “O rigoureux martire” (Act V). In the last act, note also the Bourrée pour les Egyptiens.


Listen to: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Phaéton), Ingrid Perruche (Clymène), Isabelle Druet (Théone, Astrée), Gaëlle Arquez (Libye), Andrew Foster-Williams (Épaphus), Frédéric Caton (Mérops, Automne, Jupiter), Benoît Arnould (Protée, Saturne), Cyril Auvity (Triton, le Soleil), with Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset; Aparté, 2013.

Watch: Mathias Vidal (Phaéton), Éva Zaïcik (Lybie), Victoire Bunel (Théone), Lisandro Abadie (Saturne, Ephaphus, Jupiter), Cyril Auvity (Triton, Soleil, Déesse de la Terre), Léa Trommenschlager (Climène), Viktor Shapovalov (Protée), Elizaveta Sveshnikova (Astrée), Aleksandr Egorov (Mérops), with Le Poème Harmonique conducted by Vincent Dumestre, Versailles, 2018; Château de Versailles Spectacles, 2019.

Works consulted

  • Arthur Pougin, introduction, Phaéton, Paris: Théodore Michaelis, circa 1880
  • Lionel de la Laurencie, Les maîtres de la musique : Lully, 2nd edition, Paris : Librairie Félix Alcan, 1919
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Phaeton, Operabaroque.fr

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