Quinault retained only the part of the Theseus myth concerning the hero’s youth, leaving aside more famous episodes, such as his fight with the Minotaur and his love for Ariadne, then for Phaedra, which provided the central theme for many opera librettos. He was inspired by the legend as related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book VII) and in a tragi-comédie by Jean Puget de La Serre, Thésée ou Le prince reconnu (Paris, Sommaville, 1644).
Prologue. The Graces, Cupids, Pleasures and Sports regretfully leave the gardens of Versailles, which Louis XIV no longer honours with his presence. Venus, the goddess of love, is attempting to persuade them to return, when Mars appears to the sound of trumpets and drums. The god of war allays her fears and hails Louis XIV as “a new Mars”. Joined by Ceres and Bacchus and all the actors of the prologue, they sing, in the final divertissement, of the happiness of living in a place that is the envy of the whole world.
Act I. Aglaea (Églé), a princess raised under the tutelage of King Aegeus (Égée) of Athens, is in love with Theseus. Aglaea has found refuge in the temple of Minerva. Through her confidante Cleone and Cleone’s suitor Arcas, she manages to find out what has become of the man she secretly loves. After his victory over the besiegers of Athens, King Aegeus announces his decision to marry his ward, Aglaea. The act ends with a sacrifice to Minerva during which the Athenians celebrate their victory (divertissement).
Act II. In the royal palace, Medea confesses to Dorine, her confidante, her love for Theseus. Having already murdered for love in the past, she fears a disastrous outcome. King Aegeus and Medea, once betrothed, free themselves from their commitment, so that Medea is free to declare her love for Theseus and Aegeus can marry Aglaea. After a celebration, during which the people of Athens acclaim Theseus and express their wish for him to be their king (divertissement), the young man is stopped by Medea, who seeks to find out his feelings towards her. On learning that he loves Aglaea, the sorceress reveals to him that the king is his rival; she pretends that she will intervene on his behalf. Left alone, jealous Medea swears that she will have her revenge: “Ah, if the ingrate I love escapes my wrath, at least let me not spare my happy rival!”
Act III. Medea reproaches Aglaea for “being too pleasing”. The princess replies that she has no intention of marrying the king, and reveals, to the sorceress’s rage, that she is in love with Theseus. Medea threatens her. She transforms the palace into a terrible wilderness filled with furious monsters and, aided by the inhabitants of the underworld, she torments the princess (divertissement).
Act IV. Medea terrifies Aglaea into promising to give up Theseus in order to save his life: she must make him despise her. The wilderness is immediately transformed into a delightful enchanted island. The sorceress tells Theseus that Aglaea finds the idea of a throne most appealing and that she intends to abandon him and marry the king. Left alone with Theseus, Aglaea tries to pretend that she no longer loves him, but in the end reveals her true feelings. The sorceress has overheard everything. Furious at first, she apparently relents, renounces her love for Theseus, and presents the astonished lovers with a pastoral celebration (divertissement).
Act V. Medea’s change of heart was only a sham. Having learned that Theseus is in fact the son of King Aegeus, Medea tells Dorine of her plan to have the young man poisoned by his own father, and she persuades the king, though reluctant, to comply. But as Theseus is about to drink, Aegeus recognises his son by his sword and hails him as his heir. Father and son are joyfully reunited. Unmasked, Medea flees. Aegeus gladly yields Aglaea’s hand to Theseus: they shall be married. During the wedding feast, Medea returns in a chariot drawn by flying dragons; she sets the palace ablaze and turns the food into horrible creatures to torment the Athenians, who implore the help of the gods. Minerva descends from the heavens and in place of the devastation raises a magnificent palace. The gods and the people of Athens sing together of their joy (divertissement).
Based on the synopsis given in Dictionnaire de l’Opéra de Paris sous l’Ancien Régime (1669-1791), S. Bouissou, P. Denécheau and F. Marchal-Ninosque (dir.), Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2019.
Recorded by Little Tribeca in marche 2023 in the Studio RiffX 1 at la Seine Musicale, Boulogne Billancourt.
This recording was made possible thanks to the exceptional support of Madame Aline Foriel-Destezet, Grand Mécène of the Talens Lyriques’ season.