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Celebrating 'Atys': Arts Still Flourishing

available at Amazon
Lully, Atys, G. de Mey, G. Laurens, A. Mellon, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(re-released on September 8, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HML 5901257-59

Online score:
Atys, 2d ed. (1708)
In the 1970s, a young American musician named William Christie, having received degrees at Harvard and Yale, decided to move to France. His goal was to pursue an interest in the reconstruction of Baroque music in historically informed performance, but moving to France also helped Christie avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam, to which he was vehemently opposed. In 1979, in an event whose 30th anniversary is being celebrated with this re-release, Christie founded a group of promising musicians who shared his interests, under the name Les Arts Florissants. He took the name from one of his favorite operas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, in which (surely not coincidentally for Christie) the arts are shown threatened by war but prospering under the reign of La Paix. The new ensemble scored a major success in 1984 with a landmark recording of Charpentier's stunning Médée (the second version Christie did, in the 1990s, helped introduce singers like Mark Padmore and Lorraine Hunt to the world). Suddenly, it became clear that these seemingly unwieldy operas, long relegated to the junk heap of music history, still had considerable appeal for audiences.

Through Charpentier Christie came to work on the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who jealously drove Charpentier out of the opera business. For the 300th anniversary of Lully's death, in 1987, Christie was chosen to help create a staged production of one of the composer's tragédies en musique at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Christie chose Atys (1676), according to him, "for its libretto -- it was the purity and the absolute beauty of the text that attracted me." Musicologist Jean-Paul Montagnier, who wrote the liner essay for this anniversary edition of the recording, recalls the performance thus:
Like all those present in the auditorium of the Opéra-Comique [that day], I believe I can state that the production of Atys by Jean-Marie Villégier (director), Carlo Tommasi (designer), Patrice Cauchetier (costumes), Francine Lancelot and her company Ris et Danceries (choreography) and William Christie and his Arts Florissants was an undisputed and unprecedented triumph which enabled the public to rediscover and gain a lasting appreciation of a work forgotten since its previous performances at Fontainebleau in November 1753, and more generally to rediscover a genre long regarded with a certain dignified condescendence.
The New York Times even sent John Rockwell to review the event ('Atys', by Lully, in Paris, January 18, 1987), and Andrew Porter described a later performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music as "one of the most important productions of our day; a revelation of what early opera can offer to a modern audience when inspiring direction, skilful, stylish performers, and ample funds conspire" (Alan Rich had similar praise, although there were some critical reservations about cuts and other directorial changes).

In the weeks after that performance, Christie and his forces laid down this historic recording, in the studio of La Maison de Radio France. It has been reissued a couple times, always remaining available, but this anniversary edition is the most affordable and deluxe version yet, with reproductions of a 17th-century copy of the libretto printed in parallel with the English and German translations. This 20-year-old recording still sounds gorgeous, a testament to Christie's musical vision, so clearly captured in sound during his group's first decade. The ensemble's rhythmic cohesion is so solid, even as the many dance rhythms that pervade Lully's music are given balletic lilt. The recitative, which in Lully's trademark style constantly shifts back and forth with more metered arioso-like sections, is flexible and speech-like, accompanied with a varied palette of instruments, the harmonies realized by various combinations of harpsichord, lute, theorbo, archlute, piccolo lute, and guitar. The winds are remarkably varied in the way the parts are assigned to different sections, with five recorder players (heard to hypnotizing effect in the famous sommeil scene in Act III) and eight double reeds, spread among oboes, alto oboes (tailles d'hautbois), and bassoons.

The cast is generally lovely, although one could imagine a slightly prettier, purer voice for Atys than Guy de Mey. Agnès Mellon has an affecting, rarefied sound as Sangaride, who falls in love with Atys. As the domineering goddess Cybèle, Guillemette has the same grainy, puissant edge to her tone that gave her such success as other forceful women, like her spectacular Armide for Philippe Herreweghe and as recently as Pulcheria in the new recording of Vivaldi's Atenaide. Since a critical edition has still not been published in the Lully complete works edition, in progress under Herbert Schneider and Jérôme de La Gorce for Georg Olms Verlag, the performers worked from original sources, apparently with advice from Schneider himself and the eminent French musicologist Jean Duron, among others. The version of the score, as far as I can tell, is complete or nearly so, with plenty of dance music included throughout the opera.

Watch more YouTube videos of telecast of 1987 production of Atys

Lully's librettist, Philippe Quinault, adapted one of the stranger stories of Greek mythology, that of Cybele and Attis, given in an account of an exotic cult by Pausanias (Guide to Greece, 7.17.9-13). The Phrygian earth mother goddess, Cybele, became part of the Greek pantheon, along with her son, Attis, who according to some versions of the story was born of the male part of Cybele's formerly hermaphroditic self. As Ovid retold the story in Fasti (fourth chapter, on the feasts of April), which was likely Quinault's main source, the goddess fell in love with a handsome Phrygian boy and bound him to serve in her temple. When he disobeyed the command to keep himself chaste for the goddess, Cybele drove him mad, causing him to castrate himself. In imitation of Attis, some of Cybele's male followers, the Corybantes, supposedly castrated themselves, a fate abhorred by Catullus in Carmen LXIII. Stricken with remorse for Attis, Cybele changed him into a pine tree, mentioned by Ovid in his take on the Orpheus legend in Metamorphoses (link to Anthony S. Kline's online translation, Book X).

Quinault and Lully leave out the castration part of the story, having the madness inflicted by Cybèle instead cause Atys to murder Sangaride. When he realizes what he has done, he takes his own life, leading Cybèle to transform him into a pine tree. With the question of genital self-mutilation out of the way, the main crisis of the opera is the mismatch of the couples, the two young lovers, Atys and Sangaride, forced into alliances with more important, older partners, Cybèle and Célénus, respectively. This issue of age-disparate relationships had some resonance with 17th-century society, and it was even seized upon in a parody of the opera by Fuzelier and Dorneval at the 1726 revival as La grand-mère amoureuse.

One final point about Christie's achievements over the last thirty years: surveying the list of names of the musicians who participated in this recording, it is clear that Christie has created not only one of the most distinguished discographies in the early music movement. He has also taught and mentored many musicians who have gone on to lauded careers: Bernard Deletré, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and Véronique Gens all sang minor roles; Christophe Rousset played the harpsichord in the orchestra's Petit Chœur, with Stephan Stubbs on lute; John Holloway sat first violin and played the ritournelle solos; Bruno Cocset was somewhere near the middle of the basse de violon section; Marc Minkowski played third bassoon; and Hervé Niquet can be heard in the tenor section of the chorus.


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