Jean-Baptiste Lully - Atys
Opéra Comique, Paris, 2011
William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Jean-Marie Villégier, Bernard Richter, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Emmanuelle di Negri, Nicholas Rivenq, Marc Mouillon, Sophie Daneman, Jaël Azzaretti, Paul Agnew, Cyril Auvity, Bernard Delatré
In contrast to most of William Christie’s recent productions reviving forgotten gems of early French Baroque opera, this 2011 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys for the Opéra Comique in Paris is rather more faithful to the period and tradition of the original work. It may be the case that the works of Lully’s successor Rameau are better suited to a more experimental approach that strives to find a balance between the classicism of the subjects and the modern perspective from which they must inevitably be viewed, but the Les Arts Florissantes’ production of Lully’s Armide directed by Robert Carsen shows that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. As a revival of one of Christie’s earliest productions, from 1987, what is fascinating about Jean-Marie Villégier’s production (amply documented in the extra features on this Blu-ray disc), is the careful consideration of how to present works that hadn’t been played anywhere for several hundred years in as faithful a way as possible while still making them relevant and meaningful to a new audience. The fact that a wealthy benefactor was so moved by the original production that he paid for the lavish production to be restaged in 2011 is testament to the fact that the producers got something right, and the reason why a greater audience can share in the enjoyment and beauty of this work in the age of High Definition video.
Inevitably, at this early stage in the revival and presentation of such works, the tendency is to aim towards fidelity to the period and the intentions of the work as closely as possible, but not slavishly so. There are good reasons for this, principally the fact that, even with great amounts of research on the part of Villégier - an expert on the theatre of this period - one can only come up with at best an approximation of how it was originally staged based on the scarce accounts and documentation of the opera’s original performances for the Royal Court of Louis XIV. Secondly, one has to take into consideration the expectations of a modern opera audience to some degree, since Atys itself was written and tailored to the expectations of a contemporary audience, and there’s a huge gulf of history and opera now that lies in-between that cannot be ignored. Any attempt to create authentic props, backdrops and stage effects would consequently only be a representation of a dull and dusty museum piece, making it nothing more than a curiosity of how opera would have looked in Baroque times, but Christie and his collaborators evidently believe that Lully’s Atys (like their revivals of other works from this period) has inherent musical and entertainment value that doesn’t need to be tied to a historical tradition.
Villégier’s production manages very well in this respect, aiming for period authenticity in the set and costume designs, capturing a sense of the elaborate extravagance of the work - in musical as well as in production terms - without going overboard and cluttering the stage with unnecessary props and effects. The costumes are actually those of 17th century nobility, not the robes and tunics of classical antiquity in a pastoral setting that would have been more likely employed for this subject, so the intention is clearly to give a semblance of the opera in its time rather than how it would actually have been staged. In the same vein, there is just one all-purpose grand palatial room used for all three acts, based on an historical etching, which gives sufficient room for the large cast of singers, dancers and chorus to play out the comedy, drama and tragedy of the work, conveying everything that is required through the quality of the musical and vocal presentation. The splendour and the sense of the work is thus preserved, without the need for programme footnotes to explain the tradition or make excuses for peculiarities of the production design.
The prelude in praise of the Sun King Louis XIV in this particular opera is an interesting one then, since it serves to set out the whole tone of the opera and the approach taken towards it. In the prelude, Time and the Seasons are put on hold while Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, begs leave of the king himself to delay the arrival of Spring so that the tale can be told of the tragic loves of Atys and the goddess Cybèle. It’s a very formal proposal, though it’s enlivened by comic touches, and this production accordingly plays out in the same fashion - respectfully, but with a lightness of touch. The theme, as is often the case in Baroque opera, is a romantic and a tragic one - of lovers who are kept apart by the whims of gods and kings. And, as is also often the case, gods and kings are not immune either from the forces of love. Here, Atys has just discovered that his secret love for Sangaride is reciprocal, but, alas, the discovery comes too late, for Sangaride is about to be married to the King of the Phrygians, Celenus. The lovers appeal to the goddess Cybèle, who has just appointed Atys her high priest, not knowing that Cybèle is in love with Atys herself. The results in such works when the lovers are not united with their true partners, are inevitably tragic.
While that sounds like a typically Metastasian kind of situation for a long-winded opera seria, but while Atys does indeed run to some three and a quarter hours with lots of tragic bemoaning of the cruel twists of fate and the unfathomable will of the gods, it is not a typical opera in this respect. There are no long repetitive da capo arias and no extravagant coloratura, practically no recitativo secco either, rather Atys almost holds to the model that Gluck would aspire to in his opera reforms. There is little that really stands out as an aria, but rather, a wonderful continuous flow to the singing which purposefully carries the drama and the inner feelings of the characters forward in an admirably concise and direct fashion. There are no longeurs, despite the length, the opera having a wonderful rhythm and structure of its own, the ariosos varying in pace and being broken up with ballets and the most beautiful choral arrangements. Even little divertissements, such as the prelude and the quite stunning Sleep quartet of Act III (”Dormons, dormons tous“) have a dramatic purpose, Le Sommeil arriving to transport Atys to the realm of Cybèle. All of this serves to make Atys dramatically engaging at the same time as being spellbindingly entertaining.
More than just serving these functions as should any good opera, one is equally struck and impressed by Lully’s musical sensibility, which is brought to life beautifully by William Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissantes. Despite there being some discussion of research into the instruments played and the composition of the orchestra in the accompanying documentary on disc two of this Blu-ray set, it’s not known how much reconstruction, interpretation and improvisation was involved on the part of Christie, but the results are genuinely impressive. It’s not just the interpretation and performance of the music that are successful however, but rather how every element of the production, direction and choreography falls into place with no jarring elements, creating a consistent and fluid dramatic and musical wholeness. It’s within that perfect setting that the performance of Stéphanie d’Oustrac stands out all the more vividly like a sparkling jewel. Her singing is beautiful, perhaps no more exceptional than the other fine performers in the principal roles, but in her acting, in the rush of emotions that flit across her face and rest in her eyes, she brings that much needed humanity that is essential to prevent the opera being just a dry museum curiosity and instead, as Villégier accurately describes it in the documentary feature, “a catharsis of passions” that is recognisable to any viewer of any age or period. It’s all the more impressive that it is a goddess who displays such passions and, likewise, that those all too recognisable human passions can be found in a work that is almost 350 years old.
It’s remarkable too how such an old work can look and sound so fresh on the impeccable High Definition presentation of the Blu-ray release from FRA Musica. The beautifully lit image captures all the beauty in the detail of the costumes and the production design, the direction for television by Francois Roussillon capturing it all wonderfully as ever, allowing the camera to linger on the expressions of the singers at crucial moments. Nothing is missed. The usual PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are provided and have a similar crystal clarity with fineness of detail. The surround mix in particular on this release makes great use of the additional spacing and separation of instruments. A two-disc set, disc one contains the entire opera, with disc two given over to an interesting 100-minute documentary reuniting most of the creators involved in the original 1987 production recreated here in 2011. Subtitles are in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. A very impressive set of a production (like Christie’s stunning Les Indes Galantes) that deserves to be retained for posterity.