Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music

I would say his
“little known” Atys, but all of Lully’s operas were
little known back then. The production was beyond elegant, somewhere in the
supernal realms where the goddess CybËle may dwell when she’s at home. It
would have knocked Louis XIV’s satin knee-breeches off, never mind his
gold-clocked silk stockings.

Atys knocked New York for a loop as well. The hitherto obscure
(State-side) company became a must-see on their roughly annual returns to town
among the baroque opera cognoscenti, with Atys again in 1992, and for
Charpentier’s MedÈe (which cemented Lorraine Hunt’s hold
on the public ear and eye), Monterverdi’s Ritorno di Ulisse,
Rameau’s Les BorÈades, Handel’s Hercules and
Purcell’s The Faerie Queene, to mention but a few. This year,
Atys returned (as from the realm of the august dead), as regal as ever.
Lully’s masterpiece, four long hours of it, completely sold out the
beaux-arts BAM opera house for five performances. That’s rather
more than ten thousand tickets, and they went quickly. We happy few New York

Christie’s group, with their scenic splendor, their sublime
musicianship and choreography (choreographed singers no less!), their attention
to detail, their international casts and tours are one of the reasons opera is
once again a headline art form. My date thought they should be declared a
UNESCO cultural landmark, like the Parthenon or Machu Picchu, protected from
desecration by international law, but they’ve been such a success
everywhere that hardly seems necessary. In another hundred years perhaps,
should their popularity wane.

Atys, premiering in 1676, was Lully’s fifth opera and Louis
XIV’s favorite. As with most of the others, the story is taken from
classical mythology, with whimsical alterations. Philippe Quinault’s
libretto is a triumph of sensibilitÈ, the refinement of subtle
gradations of emotion that had become chic in France (in the tragedies of
Corneille and Racine and the novels of Madame de Lafayette) and was to linger
there for centuries and influence everybody. Quinault’s verses for
Lully’s Armide et Renaud were perfectly suitable for Gluck to
create his Armide one hundred years later using the same libretto, and
the subtle discussions of this or that degree of being in love are familiar to
readers of Laclos, Stendhal and Proust. Even modern and outrageous French
writers, such as Genet or Houellebecq, have delighted in constructing their
shockers on these traditional expectations.

But in their Atys, Les Arts Florissants, whatever modern extremes
it has gone to on other occasions, has attempted a staging, within the
parameters of modern opera theater, in the high baroque style, the style of the
then brand-new chateau of Versailles. The set is a square box of faux black
marble with a Rorschach of white flaws on each wall. The doors are deep set, so
that (in the spectacular ritualistic conclusion of the first act) we behold a
procession of handmaidens of the goddess, costumed as baroque nuns in
fur-trimmed white surplices, each holding a sprig of pine (the symbol of
CybËle), appearing and proceeding through distant halls with the rhythm of the
stately music (while much action occurs in the foreground), and (we are led to
imagine) winding through the halls of the palace to enter at last stage left,
one after another, heralding the arrival (“La dÈesse dÈscende!” cry
each of the characters in turn, throughout the act), just before the curtain
falls, of the Queen of the Gods of ancient Phrygia, where the tale is set.

Even before Act I, we have been introduced to a little pageant in which Time
(blue-faced, purple-stockinged, scythe at the ready), Flora (“If I wait
until Spring, there is hardly any time for flowers before it’s
over!”—the opera premiered in January) and Melpomene, the arrogant
Muse of Tragedy, bicker over the nature of the piece to be presented in a
tradition reminiscent of the operas of Monterverdi and Cavalli, Lully’s
predecessors—and parodied endlessly, as late as Prokofiev. Act I
introduces the conflict: The river Sangarius (grand old Bernard DeletrÈ,
ruddy-faced and hollow-voiced to imply drunkenness) has given his lovely
daughter Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri, of the wistful soprano) to CÈlÈnus
(Nicolas Rivenq, a most imposing baritone), who is the King of Phrygia, as his
armored costume and plumed hat make plain. Sangaride, however, is in love with
delicate Atys (Ed Lyon, as stiff and morose in this role as he was hilarious
playing Rameau’s ActÈon the last time Les Arts were in town). Atys feigns
indifference to the emotions of the heart, but in fact he is secretly
obsessed—with Sangaride! It takes several confidantes several scenes to
straighten all this out, but even French courtiers break down and confess the
truth eventually. Happy ending to a short opera, right?

Wrong. The goddess CybËle (Anna Reinhold, a fine, dignified soprano but a
bit youthful for this—she lacks the maturity, the emotional intensity of
voice one desires such a role), great mother of Asia (roughly what is now known
as Turkey) and queen of the gods, has descended to name a new high priest. She
has chosen Atys, who therefore spends the rest of the opera in the long
buttoned cassock of a court monsignor. Her real reason for doing so is that she
has fallen, hard, for this mere mortal. Bored with prayers, rituals, human
sacrifices, she wants love, and sends an act-full of dreams to explain this to
neurotic Atys, and threaten dire consequences if he does not return her
affections. But as we already know, Atys loves Sangaride. Does this plot remind
you of Roberto Devereux, Maria Tudor and other operas of
unrequited power ladies? It cannot end well.

In the last act, seated amidst sinister baroque candles (Les Arts
Florissants always does black magic beautifully: remember Lorraine Hunt’s
MedÈe and Joyce Di Donato in Hercules?), CybËle invokes
Alecto, goddess of madness. One must say a word about the wigs here (the work
of Daniel Blanc): Everybody, singers, dancers, mimes, wears at least one, and
they are superb, curly, stiff or flowing, horned or crested, suitable for
pirouettes or coronets or plumed hats, with fontanges, lacy
headdresses named for a mistress of Louis XIV, for many of the ladies. Wigs
were de rigueur at Versailles, hence throughout noble Europe. When, at the
crisis, Atys and Sangaride appear with hair askew, we know they have, well,
flipped their wigs. Sure enough, maddened Atys stabs Sangaride (offstage) and
then, on realizing what he has done, himself (ditto). CybËle, obliged to live
forever but filled with regret, transforms Atys into the emblematic pine, green
when all other trees are bare, that we have seen on the faux tapestry stage
curtain all night. (In the actual rites of this goddess, her priests, or
galli, would become frenzied and castrate themselves. That would never
do at Versailles. Suicide might be against the Church, but it was
respectable. Ancient Romans did it all the time, you know.)

Into this short, sharp story, Lully (once he had got his king and dancing
partner’s attention) threw every instrument in his arsenal: violins and
theorbos, recorders of every shape and kind, solos and chorales, court dances
and folk dances and ritual processions and commedia dell’arte
mime, and every variety of instrumentation and vocalization 1675 had to offer.
From a less inspired composer or a less inspired company it would have been too
much. Keeping the lights on and playing cards or sipping champagne during the
entire performance no doubt helped back then. These particular traditions have
not been maintained.

Jean-Marie VillÈgier’s production, aimed oh-so-graciously at us (we
enact Le Roy Soleil for the duration), lures us into a forgotten world of
supreme majesty. Carlo Tommasi’s scenery and Patrice Cauchetier’s
costumes—so much black and gray and silver in so many different patterns
and textures, and then blazing colors when at last they arrive in the dream
sequence—are clearly inspired by the sumptuous paintings of
France’s most golden age. Francine Lancelot and BÈatrice Massin have
created hours of divertissement in the dances, the charades, the mime episodes,
the twirls of the chorus and the soloists in the dainty, high-heeled dance
styles of the era. In such an elaborate banquet of delights, each new course is
a marvel, teasing yet another unsuspected receptor on our visual and aural
taste buds. It goes on and on until one thinks one is beyond surprise—and
then out come the Italian or Spanish dances, or the onstage instrumental
ensembles in full costume, or the vengeful goddess in volatile transformation.
Lully’s invention never flags—why should our attention?

In Act IV, for example, just as one might be tempted to check one’s
watch, the frustrated Sangaride is consoled by two friends, Idas and Doris
(gallantly sung by Marc Mauillon and Sophie Daneman), and after the hours of
stately accompanied declamation that makes up most of the text, they suddenly
gave us an a cappella trio of serene melodic charm, their voices so perfectly
blended and twined and supportive that one almost did not notice the orchestra
had ceased to join them. (Lully had written an entire a cappella mass for four
voices; he knew where his talents lay.)

Lully’s operas, like Monteverdi’s and Cavalli’s and such
imitators of Lully as Conradi and Rameau, do not clearly break the musical
fabric into “numbers” and “dialogue.” This problem,
which has been basic to opera from the very beginning and is susceptible of any
number of solutions, produced, in the seventeenth century a more melodious
declamation with perhaps fewer tuneful interruptions, the arias and concerted
passages that occur to us when we think of opera. There are fewer
“buttons” for concentration-breaking applause. This makes the
presentation of Lully a more focused, more complete, more, well, Wagnerian

This engaging texture also has the effect of making these older operas seem
more appealing, more modern to contemporary audiences than does the opera
of the succeeding age, where yards of secco recitative are
interrupted by (usually long-awaited) melodic statements of single or double
static emotional states by virtuoso singers, who are thus highlighted and, in a
sense, divorced from the larger drama. A master baroque singer (I’m
recalling David Daniels in particular; lovers of the form will all have special
favorites) can make the recits as intense, as thrilling, as the arias, but
generally, recits are a slog. After the “reforms” of Gluck, Mozart
and Rossini, the melodies emerged imperially from their formal cocoons,
annexing and colonizing more and more of the action, until the recit-free,
through-composed dramatic treatments of Wagner and Puccini evolved. This took
time, but it was what a more drama-conscious public desired, as well as what
they were gradually trained to expect on the opera stage. Melodious,
excerptable arias are now the exception, though there are enough archaizing
composers around who try to produce them. (I am thinking of Figaro’s
dreary “patter song” in Corigliano’s Ghosts of
and the misbegotten “New York aria” in
Picker’s American Tragedy. But there have been good ones, too:
Baby Doe’s “Letter Song;” the girls’ duet in
the opening scene of Harbison’s Great Gatsby.)

Therefore, Lully’s stock is rising. Les Arts Florissants, who have
materially led this restoration, revisit their own past, but their achievements
and the leadership of William Christie have not paused to take a breath. We may
expect more glory; they have given us every reason to do so.

John Yohalem

image_description=Jean-Baptiste Lully
product_title=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Atys
product_by=CybËle: Anna Reinhold; Sangaride: Emmanuelle de Negri; MÈlisse: Ingrid Perruche; Atys: Ed Lyon; CÈlÈnus: Nicolas Rivenq; Dieu du Sommeil: Paul Agnew; Le Temps, le fleuve Sangar: Bernard DeletrÈ. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, performance of September 23.
product_id=Above: Jean-Baptiste Lully