Atys

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Libretto by Philippe Quinault
Opera Comique
Opera Comique, Paris, France

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Atys

In 1987, Opera Comique in Paris had a big success with Jean-Marie Villégier’s magnificent production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Atys. Conducted by William Christie, it brilliantly recreated what the opera might have looked like at its première in 1676.

The production, three hours long, was a major turning point in the revival of Baroque opera, which up till then had been largely ignored.

Atys was very expensive to stage. The huge cast of singers and dancers were opulently costumed and wigged for the 17th century and the court at Versailles. Opera Comique was able to recreate the production in 2011, and also film it, only because it was financed by a very rich philanthropist who wanted to see it again.

Atys is about the grandeur of love, its passionate extremes and revenges. Atys was Louis XIV’s favourite opera. Louis and Lully had been friends ever since Lully had arrived at the French court when he was 19 and the king was 16.

The libretto is based on Ovid. Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri), a nymph, forcibly engaged to King Celenus (Nicolas Rivenq), is in love with Atys (Bernard Richter), a shepherd.

The goddess Cybèle (Stéphanie d’Oustrac), who is also in love with Atys, is so jealous of his love for Sangaride that she puts him under a spell and, whilst he is under the spell, dramatically acted, he murders Sangaride believing she is a monster.

Realising what he has done, Atys commits suicide and has an impressive funeral, with his corpse surrounded by myriad candles and the singers and dancers all in black. Cybèle then turns him into a sacred pine tree.

The music is exquisitely played by Les Arts Florissants. The solos, duets and ensembles are a delight. So, too, are the interspersed interludes of dancing, an essential feature of Baroque opera’s courtly artifice. D’Oustrac is a formidable goddess, blaming love for her cruelty. Richter and de Negri have a heartfelt duet when Atys and Sangaride blame each other for their heartbreak.

Opera Comique’s Atys can be viewed on Medici.TV and is also available on DVD.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch