It is surprising that this is the first recording of this work. The score was never "lost"; it was printed immediately after the work's premiere in 1679. The opera was one of Lully's bigger successes in his lifetime. And it has a famous librettist, the dramatist Corneille. We can't know what led previous baroque performers to ignore this charming piece, but Christophe Rousset claims his interest was peaked when a manuscript score (with some important notations and additions) was recently discovered in a bookstore. Rousset has incorporated some of those changes in this performance.
Well, historiography aside, "Bellerophon" is a delightful work of French baroque musical stage. Its mythological subject, the heroic Greek title character, was already a popular opera subject by the time Lully got to it, but events permitted Lully to fill his story with contemporary allusions. Indeed, in 1679 Louis XIV may have been at the apogee of his reign as the Sun King. The king's recent victories at Ghent and Ypres led to the Treaties of Nijmegen (where France ended war with the Dutch and the Holy Roman Empire). Louis is seen as Bellerophon who, riding the winged horse Pegasus, slays the fearul monster Chimera (presumably the rest of Europe). In Corneille's prologue, Louis is actually explicitly referred to as the peace-giving greatest king in the world. The rest of the Corneille-Lully plot is the usual complicated baroque story: Bellerophon is to wed his beloved, Philonoe, daughter of the King of Lycia, Iobates. But the hero is also desired by Sthenoboea, widow of the crown of Argos. In her anger and jealousy at being denied Bellerophon, she asks her friend, the wizard Amisodarus, to summon from the underworld a terrifying monster, the Chimera, to wreak havoc on Lycia. Bellerophon volunteers to fight the monster, knowing full well an oracle has proclaimed that only a son of Neptune will succeed in destroying it, and that he will therefore die in the attempt. Weeping and wailing ensue. But, after some exertion, Bellerophon does kill the beast. Amid Lycian rejoicing at the peace Bellerophon has brought to the kingdom, it is discovered that he actually is a son of Neptune. Of course, there are a couple of sub-plots and intrigues behind this main story-line. This drama clearly must have afforded plenty of opportunity for colorful scene-stage work.
Lully does take a slightly stripped-down, fast-paced approach to the five-act work, though. Ballet interludes are kept to a minimum, at least for a French baroque work. Recitatives are not long (and are scored). Memorable arias are rare; the glory of this work is its duets, ensemble pieces, and choruses. (How much Rousset's editing has to do with all this is unclear at this point.)
Vocally, the work here is faultless. Most of the cast is French. The role of Bellerophon is taken by a regular tenor, Cyril Auvity, and he's memorable. His love duet ("Que tout parie..") with Celine Scheen (Philonoe) is one of the high points of the opera. Les Talens Lyriques is one of the three or four top period ensembles in the world, so no problem there. Rousset's performance on the continuo-harpsichord seems as if it's recorded a bit forward, and stands out a little too much for me. A minor quibble in the context of an outstanding recording. The packaging is delightful, too: no ordinary jewel box, but rather a bound book the size of a jewel case, nicely illustrated, with the CDs in slip cases in the binding. Full libretti in French, English, and German. This is a recording of a live performance; hardly any stage noises (thank goodness), but extended applause at the end of each disc (for those who care).
Incidentally, when Louis XIV finally saw the work in 1680, he was mightily pleased, and stopped the performance repeatedly to hear favorite passages played over again.