Lully’s Atys, by Les Arts Florissants, cond. William Christie, at Opera Comique

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(c) Susan Brodie

Bearing the weight of French tradition

 

Just a short note about Atys, as I'll be covering this show in print when Les Arts Florissants come to Brooklyn in September. Arriving with only a 6€ "sans visibilité" ticket in hand for the May 12 opening night of the Opéra Comique revival, I was thrilled to find a subscriber with an extra ticket dead center in the third balcony. It was well worth the extra investment–this is a beautiful production to see as well as hear. The theater as usual was uncomfortably stuffy and severe jet lag threatened to undermine alertness, but the music, the singing, lots of baroque dance, and the gorgeous playing kept me wide awake.

 

My memories of the original production (by Jean-Marie Villégier) from over 20 years ago are hazy at best, but the gentleman sitting next to me remembered it well. He found it "as handsome as the first time" but reflected that the staging, with its lightly stylized 18th century sets (Carlo Tommasi) and costumes (Patrice Cauchetier) seemed almost old-fashioned. Curious choice of words to describe a period production, but it underlined the fact that even with the scrupulous adherence to historical performance practice by period instrument ensembles, baroque opera is theater and as such is treated as a living art, especially in Paris, where you can see a different baroque opera most every week. I was most struck by the careful realization of Quinault's formal verses as a vivid story full of strong emotion. Baroque gestures used by all the singers never got in the way of understanding exactly what was happening and what each character was feeling. The dramatically static divertissements were enlivened with wonderful baroque dance, recreated from choreography by the late Francine Lancelot.

 

I will mention mezzo Stéphanie D'Oustrac, as she will not be making the trip to New York (she'll be busy singing Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito at the Opéra Garnier). Since I first heard her as a very young artist with Christie she's been singing everything from Rameau to Schoenberg. D'Oustrac provided a real diva turn as Cybèle, the goddess whose thwarted love for the eponymous mortal hero propels her to tragic revenge. I did hear a few worrisome moments of pressure on the voice, but her singing was very stylish and her assumption of the character, a cross between Norma and Armida, was mesmerizing.

 

Noted with interest: principal soloists were designated by modern names for their voice types (sopranos, mezzo, tenor, etc.) but soloists for the divertissements and choristers were identified as dessus, haute-contre, taille, and basse. The listing for the string section of the orchestra bore similar designations. Soloists for the divertissements were participants in the current edition of Le Jardin des Voix,.

 

Tickets are already on sale for September performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Don't wait too long to order seats: this is a delightful chance to see baroque opéra à la française.