This year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music celebrates its 150th anniversary, giving itself a 16-month-long birthday party chock-full of performances, special events, and even the opening of a new performance space. Highlights include the return of the historic Philip Glass–Robert Wilson collaboration Einstein on the Beach, as well as a further installment of the Bridge Project, featuring Sam Mendes’s production of Richard III starring Kevin Spacey. But it’s the anniversary’s opening event, which begins performances on September 18, that is perhaps the most eagerly awaited: the return of William Christie and his world-renowned early music group Les Arts Florissants with their legendary production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Atys in a production directed by Jean-Marie Villégier from the Opéra Comique in Paris.
This staging first visited BAM in 1989 (and returned in 1992), immediately sparking renewed interest in French Baroque opera. Now, a new generation will have the opportunity to experience in all of its opulence the tragic story of Atys, the naïve mortal who spurns the love of Cybèle, the all-powerful Queen of the Gods, in favor of his true beloved, the nymph Sangaride. Suffice it to say that when you betray the Queen of the Gods, the consequences are severe.
Working closely with librettist Philippe Quinault (and many argue that Quinault’s text is every bit as masterful itself as Lully’s music), Lully composed Atys in 1675 expressly for Louis XIV in a splendid style in keeping with court life at Versailles. But it was, musically, also a new style. Billed as “a tragedy in music,” Atys is literally that: a supremely elegant piece of spoken theater—but sung.
“Lully learned how to put French music into song,” Maestro Christie explained in a recent phone conversation from France. “The French are obviously in love with their language, and at that point, there was no music doing service to the words. Here, all of a sudden, French found a way of being not only declaimed by actors but sung by singers.”
Indeed, Atys is mostly composed of recitative, which is only occasionally interrupted by the sudden burst of a small four-line duet or trio, just to underscore a dramatic point. Traditional stand-alone arias are even scarcer. Of course, there are the so-called divertissements—much larger set pieces often accompanied by ballet—but their function in Lully’s hands goes beyond simple diversion. In Atys, they drive forward the unstoppable action of the tragedy.
Christie’s vocal ensemble and orchestra are huge by early music group standards. Villégier’s gorgeous production sets the opera in a Versailles-like space, with lavish costumes contemporary to Lully’s time. The ballet sequences are also in the baroque style—with subtle, modern touches. This choice of setting might lead some to interpret the piece as a metaphor for court sexual politics and the King’s absolute power. But this would be reading perhaps too much into it. The production as a whole certainly furnishes a unique peephole backwards in time into what the spectacles at the Sun King’s court might have been like. But Atys is first and foremost a breathtakingly beautiful and poignant treatise on love and the unbearable joys and pain it necessarily entails. “It’s a classic and well-travelled path,” Christie said, summing up Cybèle’s relationship with Atys. “We follow this extraordinary story of meeting, fascination, and courtship, and then rejection . . . which ends up in tragedy.”
In other words, at the ripe old age of 300-something, Atys turns out it to be remarkably modern.