French opera in the 18th century took itself very seriously; it was a lavish and stylised high-brow entertainment for the aristocracy, and operated a closely guarded monopoly to prevent imitations. All these factors left it wide open to mockery, and a parallel genre of parody opera quickly sprang up around the Parisian fairgrounds. Plots were dragged down from the lofty realms of classical mythology to the banal mundanity of peasant life, scores were raided for their most popular tunes and when the Comédie-Française attempted to ban anyone from acting beyond its own stage, the enterprising folk in the fairgrounds started using puppets instead and got the audience to provide their own singing.

The Parisian crowds loved the topsy-turvey world of these opera parodies and and one of the most parodied works was Lully’s opera Atys. Director Jean-Philippe Desrousseaux has drawn on a number of Atys parodies to create Atys en Folie (Crazy Atys) a new production for the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, in conjunction with Valletta’s Teatru Manoel, for the Valletta International Baroque Festival. CMBV’s production mixes puppets with humans, and with a small live band which includes suitably rustic bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy.

The opera parody shares a lot with pantomime and puppet traditions: the plot for Atys en Folie transforms the hero Atys into Punchinello, the goddess Cybele becomes a classic pantomime dame and the action revolves around slapstick and unsubtle innuendos: instead of recruiting a new priest as in the original, Cybele is on the hunt for a new gardener, thus setting up a never-ending run of jokes linking Cybele’s sex life to a garden. There was a lot of shrieking in impenetrable 18th-century French (thankfully we were given surtitles) and what singing there was was often a noisy caricature of real operatic singing: and in keeping with the original tradition, the audience were given a couple of sing-a-longs. The dialogue nodded amusingly at times towards the stock operatic devices, such as when Pulchinello and Marguerite argued, then agreed that they needed to sing a big love duet to make-up, and in a topical nod to the Valletta Festival’s gala concert the previous night, Charpentier’s Te Deum found its way into the music.

The puppets were charming and cleverly done, particularly in their interactions with the human characters – the human Marguerite locked in an embrace with her puppet lover, or the slick transition as Cybele ran up the steps onto the wings of the puppet booth and emerged on stage as a puppet. Punchinello’s dream of heaven and hell was beautifully done, with animated clouds, and the hurdy-gurdy providing eerie accompaniment.

The production was a fascinating exploration into a particular historical form of entertainment, and had been well-crafted with a lot of attention to detail, but it’s a very particular type of humour that is not to everyone’s taste. I have to confess that I struggled to laugh at anything and found the whole thing extremely tiresome, but I was definitely in the minority, as there were clearly plenty of people in the audience who were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and it was greeted by rapturous applause.