In 1676, Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote Atys, an unusually tragic opera that became a favorite of the king. In 1987, William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants revived it in an acclaimed series of performances in Paris and eventually at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like Louis XIV centuries before, modern audiences were enchanted by the work’s austere, pure declamation, grand choruses, and graceful dances and its success was again influential. In the seventeenth century it led to more unrelentingly tragic operas, in the twentieth it spurred the revival of many other brilliant and forgotten French Baroque works. Now, 22 years after its first appearance in New York, Atys is back at BAM and we can again see what everyone was so excited about in the first place.

© Pierre Grosbois
© Pierre Grosbois

The opera’s mythological plot, set by librettist Phillippe Quinault from Ovid, is quite simple. The young Atys and Sangaride love each other, but Sangaride is to marry the king of Phrygia and the goddess Cybèle in turn loves Atys. Love triangles involving gods tend to end particularly badly and this one is no exception. Cybèle uses her powers to make Atys kill Sangaride. When Atys realizes what he has done he kills himself. This unfolds at a leisurely pace, interspersed with interludes of songs and dances. Unlike earlier operas, though, even these allow for little comedy.

Jean-Marie Villégier’s production has been reconstructed from its 1987 form. Rather than a mythological setting, he gives us a opulent vision of Louis’s court with enormous wigs, wide skirts, and grand gestures, almost entirely in black, white, and gray. While clearly modeled on paintings and other images of the period, it’s a stylized and postmodern vision, ceremonial in the large scenes and more naturalistic in the intimate ones. The prologue, which serves as a dedication to the king, is staged as a sort of rehearsal in the presence of the court, overseen by Lully himself. The feeling that we're watching a performance never really disappears, but despite this artifice the production's simplicity and elegance easily carry emotional depth.

Les Arts Florissants are on their home territory with this music, and its slippery rhythms and sliding between recitative, aria and chorus are executed with ease and elan. The orchestra was assured and brilliant under Christie’s leadership, though balances between sections were not always ideal and inner voices were occasionally lost despite the orchestra’s lean sound. The greatest musical achievement was perhaps that of the gorgeously blended and impeccably coordinated chorus.

The solo singing was similarly polished and immediate. The opera includes a great deal of ornate recitative, but fortunately most of the cast had the gift to make it sound spontaneous and conversational rather than stiff, accompanied by a varied group of harpsichord, guitar, lutes, cello and viola da gamba. Christie favors singers with young, sweet voices, which yielded uneven results. The production is a triumph of teamwork, not towering individual performances, but the standout in this cast was soprano Emmanuelle de Negri. A veteran of many Christie performances, she made a sincere, clear-toned Sangaride. The other two leads were more disappointing. In the title role, Ed Lyon has a masterly command of French text and style, but his tenor was tightly wound and monochromatic. Young mezzo Anna Reinhold has a lovely light voice, but lacked the emotional depth and gravitas to convince as the goddess Cybèle. Highlights among the many supporting roles were Nicolas Rivenq’s rich-voiced Célénus and Cyril Auvity’s Morphée, who appeared in a long, beautiful interlude in which Cybèle visits Atys in his dreams (pictured).

The inventive dances, performed by the Compagnie Fêtes Galantes, were modeled on those from seventeenth-century sources and added greatly to the proceedings, which could become weighed down under so much recitative. Indeed, this was probably also Villégrier’s motivation in adding comedy at some points, even when it seemed slightly at odds with the music, such as a drunken wedding guest. While the unity of tragedy in Atys was one of its most important features in 1676, to a modern audience, particularly a non-Francophone one, the music can lack expressive variety and the slow plot can drag. To its credit, this almost never happened over the course of the four-hour afternoon.

The opportunity to revisit Atys came courtesy of philanthropist Ronald P. Stanton, who was so taken with the performance in 1987 that he bankrolled its return. Performances of Lully operas are still so rare (requiring as they do enormous performance forces and specialist knowledge) that to see any at all is an opportunity, much less one at this exalted level. But one must question the decision to just repeat a prior success when so many other French Baroque operas have still not even been seen once in New York. The present production of Atys will soon be released on DVD; one can also see Les Arts Florissants’ productions of Lully’s Armide as well as his successor Rameau’s Les Paladins, Les Boréades and Les Indes Galantes on video. One can hope that this excellent production is again an inspiration, and we will see more works of this rich period soon.

*****