Lully’s Atys: Brilliant Production of Opera Where Drama Outshines Music

United StatesUnited States Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys: Soloists, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (conductor). Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York 20.9.2011 (SSM)

Coproduction Opéra Comique, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Théâtre de Caen, Opéra National de Bordeaux, Les Arts Florissants

Direction: Jean-Marie Villégier
Choreography: Francine Lancelot (original), Beatrice Massin (revival)

An earlier performance of Atys in Bordeaux was reviewed by my colleague, José MªIrurzun, here:  Atys


Anna Reinhold, Ed Lyon,Ingrid Perruche. Photo credit: Stephanie-Berger

Much has been said and written about the performers and the staging of William Christie’s production of Lully’s masterful opera Atys. And rightly so: last evening’s performance at BAM was as close to perfect as can be imagined.

What struck me most was how well this production’s disparate patches were sewn together into a seamless whole. Although the text was written by the renowned dramatist Philippe Quinault, it is likely that it was Lully in collaboration with King Louis XIV who chose the topic and made the dramatic decisions. If this was not quite a Wagnerian one-man show, it came very close to being one.

Most operas are dominated by the music. Even in operas with tightly integrated music, drama and dancing – Wagner’s, for example – it’s the music that is at the forefront. In Atys the musical demands are less important than the dramatic ones.  None of the singers are required to go beyond their given tessitura. Countertenors are not needed: none of the music requires that voice range. Most of the recitatives are sung as ordinaire, accompanied not by the orchestra but by a keyboardist and plucked string bass instrument. Long recitatives without orchestral accompaniment can make for very dry stretches, and this was the case in the first two acts where much time was spent vocalizing the play’s exposition. Appropriately perhaps, recitativo secco is another expression used for this kind of oration.

This focus on drama as opposed to music helps explain the opera’s popularity with viewers who might find Lully’s music in his other works for stage impenetrable or tedious. Thinking back to 1994 when I saw Christie’s production of Charpentier’s Médée at BAM, it was the music that dominated. Perhaps that is why Médée has not had the popularity of Atys, although it is regarded as musically superior even by Christie himself. He states in the book accompanying his second recording of Médée that of all his fully staged productions, including Atys, Médée is the one that’s most important, the one whose effect on the staging of music is “immeasurable.”

As for the choreography, it would be interesting to see how the brilliant dancing that was done in this production compares to Christie’s 1986 premiere. The discoveries made in the area of Baroque choreography over the last two decades have been substantial.  For one thing, we’ve learned that Baroque choreography was as concerned with the matter and manner of gesture, arm positions and pantomime as it was with ballet movements themselves, and this production successfully incorporated these advances.

Here then is true drama – love, jealousy, revenge, murder, trickery and remorse – which is what keeps our attention for four hours. From the traditional opening prologue, which, like those of other Baroque operas, has little to do with what follows, to the frozen character left on stage as the final curtain descended, it was the drama that we were most focused on. This becomes even clearer to the viewer when the company takes its bows and curtsies, with the prominent members of the cast doing so individually. Would you recognize every performer and the role each played? Would you remember which singer sang which aria in what act? This is not a criticism of the production, but is the result of following Lully’s wishes to the letter.

Ed Lyon,Emmanuelle de Negri Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Baroque opera, like any musical genre, takes time to appreciate. Christie has done us a service by discovering this old-new musical source, and the influence of his original production of Atys on the classical music scene can not be underestimated. Christophe Rousset, Mark Minkowski, Hugo Reyne and Hervé Niquet, all former members of Les Arts Florissants, have made successful careers as conductors of Baroque groups and have all done productions and recordings of French Baroque music. Inspired by Christie, these conductors have clearly wiped away the notion that French Baroque music is nothing more than music for the dilettante, pompous music used mainly to open BBC television programs.

Stan Metzger