Just How Good is Les Arts Florissants's 'Atys'?

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Critics have a rather significant struggle when writing reviews: Timing, word counts, and the mercy of editors aside, we often have to mitigate our initial reactions to performances with the fact that, unlike the rest of the audience, we didn’t pay for our tickets. Often a work we love initially is not one we would pay $115 to see. 

However, I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration to dub Les Arts Florissants’s current run of Atys the finest event of opera in New York so far this year. And I would, budget and timing permitting, happily pay $460 to see each of its four subsequent performances at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

With such accolades in mind, it’s unsurprising that this production is what put William Christie’s vibrant and vivacious Baroque outfit on the proverbial map nearly 25 years ago at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. Bearing no signs of age, this obsessively crafted and impeccably executed account of Lully’s four-hour tragédie-lyrique is a revelation, exploring the timeless appeal of Louis XIV’s court composer. With two centuries between the last time Lully’s works saw the light of day and this Atys’s Parisian premiere in 1987, American conductor and Parisian expat William Christie has emerged as the Baroque revival’s own Sun King, reasserting his divine birthright to this elaborately understated music yesterday in the pit, presiding over a flawless orchestra and cast of singers.

As Atys, tenor Ed Lyon spun sonic gold and was a devastating stage presence, especially in his impassioned moments with Emmanuelle de Negri’s effulgent Sangaride. For a work written over 200 years before Verdi and Puccini were creating ravishing and heartbreaking duets, the tender moments between Lyon and de Negri revealed Lully’s palette to be entirely on par with even the most tear-jerking moments of Aida or Madama Butterfly.

Anna Reinhold was imperious and vengeful as the role of goddess Cybèle, a soprano full of spite that would ultimately be her own—and everyone else’s undoing. Bernard Deletré had a late-inning buffo moment as Sangaride’s father, while Nicolas Rivenq was fach-defying as Célénius, Sangaride’s intended. Equally radiant was Paul Agnew as the god of sleep, leading a trippy and hypnotic dream sequence that puts The Book of Mormon’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” to shame.

Credit, however, must be shared between Christie’s musical magic and the directorial eye of Jean-Marie Villégier, whose cultivated sensibilities of French theater align in a stylistic yet natural way. A prologue, a Lully-ian trademark to pay homage to his commissioner, features gods and muses fastidiously choreographed by a dancer serving as impresario (perhaps, given the heavy conducting stick he had in hand, Lully himself). Beyond the eleven dancers choreographed by Fancine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin, the principals and chorus also moved with graceful intention and control that amplified the music.

Like the title character caught in a quadrangle between the goddess who loves him, the woman he loves and her intended husband, there is an underlying cool artifice to Atys, one of stylized movements that may have been second nature in Lully’s time. Correspondingly, the sets (Carlo Tommasi), costumes (Patrice Cauchetier), wigs (Daniel Blanc) and lighting (Patrick Méeüs) run the gamut of the grayscale color spectrum. Underneath that, however, when characters drop pretenses, their actions free up into writhing convulsions. Powdered wigs are abandoned, hair is let down. Atys’s final frenzy, brought on by the shock of killing his lover was balletic and breathless; a gut wrenching propulsion of arms and fluttering of a red-lined gray coat.

There’s a blend of irony and proclamation in the text of Philippe Qunaiult’s libretto. Most striking is the clear truth that, when it comes to emotions and entanglements, not much has changed since the 17th Century—or, for that matter, Ovid’s mythological era. Among these lines was one from Cybèle, who says: “On this very spot I shall bring together abundance and glory.” Standing in the pit on Sunday afternoon, William Christie must have been thinking the exact same thing.