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Jack Anderson

Staging "Atys"


Les Arts Florissants
Opéra Comique
Compagnie Fêtes Galantes
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Sept. 18, 20, 21, 23, 24 (closed)
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Sept. 27, 2011

With their strange plots, florid spectacles, and stately declamations, Baroque operas can seem to exist in theatrical worlds totally apart from those to which we are accustomed, and the characters in them may strike us as aliens: not merely foreigners, but beings from other planets. Yet the music for these works is often magnificent. And, of course, audiences in the Baroque era thought such operas not in the least alien: for them, they were the way operas were supposed to be. But how can we make them meaningful in our own time? This now-famous production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s "Atys" answers that question by eschewing trendy contemporary gimmicks and taking the opera on its own terms, daring to trust Lully, his librettist Philippe Quinault, and the theatrical conventions of their day.

As staged by Jean-Marie Villégier under the musical direction of William Christie, "Atys" created a stir when first presented here in 1989. As brought back with the philanthropic generosity of Ronald P. Stanton, it has not lost its power. Before 1989, New York had seen admirable Baroque productions by Catherine Turocy, among other specialists. But here was Baroque opera on a grand scale. And it worked. With choreography by Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin, scenery by Carlo Tomassi, and costumes by Patrice Cauchetier, it still works.

These collaborators had to cope with major interpretative problems. Take the libretto. Two young people, Atys (the attractive tenor Ed Lyon) and Sangaride (the equally attractive soprano Emanuelle de Negri), fall in love. Yet complications ensue because Sangaride is also loved by King Célénus (the bass-baritone Nicolas Rivenq), while Atys has attracted the goddess Cybèle (Anna Reinhold, an eloquent, dramatically powerful mezzo-soprano). Before the opera ends, Cybèle bewitches Atys so that he thinks Sangaride is a monster and kills her, whereupon, learning the truth about the deception, he kills himself. But Cybèle, now smitten with remorse, turns him into a pine tree, so that at least something of his presence will remain in the natural world.

Because this is a plot 21st–century audiences may not find instantly appealing, Christie and Villégier had to resist several temptations in bringing it to the stage. Like some producers of old operas nowadays, they could have updated it, hoping a later era and a different locale might make it more relevant. But, considering the kind of story it is, what period could significantly enliven it? Or, again like some producers, they could have changed the work’s tone. Reading accounts of recent stagings of Baroque operas, it seems that certain directors are treating them in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, as if to imply that we know better than those quaint old folk from long ago. Thus a few years back at the Paris Opéra I saw a Christie-supervised production of Rameau’s "Les Indes Galantes" that gave the erroneous impression that this grand spectacle had lots of surface glitter, but little solid substance.

"Atys" is different, and eminently serious, and as a result it is exciting and eloquent. Nevertheless, I was initially disturbed by the staging’s rather arch tone in the prologue, which shows what appear to be preparations for a court entertainment celebrating nature, art and a monarch (presumably Louis XIV, who came to love "Atys"). But once the prologue ends, all hints of mockery vanish and the opera proceeds with sobriety and gravity: one knows why in its time it was termed a tragédie lyrique.

Baroque conventions enhance its power, among them the use of period instruments. Although to 17th-century ears they sounded the way instruments were supposed to sound, to us they may sometimes sound a bit exotic, or at least odd, in their textures. Because they do they place "Atys" in a special sonic realm we have gained permission to enter: these old and, to us, comparatively unfamiliar sounds help make the opera fresh and new. As played on period instruments, the sonorities of a long dream sequence become especially ravishing.

Christie and Villégier also let Baroque staging enhance the opera’s dramatic power. Again, there are problems. Consider the time scheme. "Atys" lasts four hours, a length today’s theatergoers do not habitually find congenial. Moreover, "Atys" abounds in processionals and extended choruses. Some contemporary producers might try to divert us by having ensembles rush here and there to this music, gesturing frantically all the while. But, far from minimizing the opera’s length, such excessive activity would probably only call undue attention to it. In contrast, this "Atys" lets the processions proceed on their stately way, sometimes punctuated by dances: carefully measured dances in the heeled shoes of the period. Nothing is hurried; even running and gliding can be interrupted by artful pauses during which time appears to be momentarily suspended, only to start up again a few seconds later.

As for the choruses, they are musically sumptuous. Here, again, some producers might try to distract us from an awareness of their length with lots of activity during the singing. But Christie’s choristers frequently stand stock still, letting the music do the movement. Doris Humphrey used to warn dance composition students fond of aimless, busy-ness, "Don’t just do something, stand there." That was good advice, and it became thrilling to hear Lully’s choruses so beautifully sung without distractions.

In historical terms, I have no idea how many details in the production are literally "authentic." Let musicologists and theater historians ponder this. What is important is that the collaborators who put "Atys" together have respected the Baroque era and have evoked its spirit.

Most of the action takes place in a single austere room, but it’s one lined with black marble. "Atys" is simultaneously restrained and opulent.


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