Lully and Quinault’s Atys: Christie and Villégier’s Historic Production of Les Arts Florissants Revived at BAM for its 150th Anniversary

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The Final Scene of Atys, illustrated in the first edition (1676) of Quinault's libretto.

The Final Scene of Atys, illustrated in the first edition (1676) of Quinault’s libretto.

Ronald P. Stanton presents
by Jean-Baptiste Lully
libretto by Philippe Quinault

Les Arts Florissants
L’Opéra Comique
Musical direction by William Christie
Directed by Jean-Marie Villégier
Associate director Christophe Galland
Scenic design by Carlo Tommasi
Costume design by Patrice Cauchetier
Choreography by Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin
Lighting design by Patrick Méeüs

Atys – Ed Lyon
Cybèle – Anna Reinhold
Sangaride – Emmanuelle de Negri
Célénus – Nicolas Rivenq
Idas – Marc Mauillon
Doris – Sophie Daneman
Mélisse – Ingrid Perruche
Dieu du Sommeil – Paul Agnew
Morphée – Cyril Auvity
Le Temps / le fleuve Sangar – Bernard Deletré
Maître de cérémonie / Alecton – Jean-Charles di Zazzo
The Impresario – Olivier Collin
Flore / Suite de Sangar – Élodie Fonnard
Iris – Rachel Redmond
Melpomène – Liesbeth Devos
Zéphir / Suite de Sangar – Francisco Fernández-Rueda
Zéphir – Reinoud Van Mechelen
Phobétor – Callum Thorpe
Phantase – Benjamin Alunni
Songe Funeste – Arnaud Richard
soloist from the 2011 edition of Le Jardin des Voix
Dancers – Compagnie Fêtes Galantes: Bruno Benne, Sarah Berreby, David Berring, Laura Brembilla, Olivier Collin, Estelle Corbière, Laurent Crespon, Claire Laureau, Adeline Lerme, Akiko Veaux
Gil Isoart courtesy of Opéra national de Paris
Priestesses – Elizabeth Carey, Marie de Testa, Laura DiOrio, Stephanie Feiger, Marissa Maislen, Meredith Napolitano, Hannah Wilson, Rebecca Ellen Wolf
Choir and orchestra Les Arts Florissants

This season several New York arts institutions will be celebrating important anniversaries. The Collegiate Chorale is 70. Carnegie Hall, at 120, began its celebrations with a historical eye back to its origins: the inaugural concert conducted by Tchaikovsky was honored by a complete cycle of the symphonies played by a Russian orchestra led by a Russian conductor, to complete the contact with the founding event. The oldest of these, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, chose to open their 150th anniversary celebrations with a more recent, but no less historically significant commemoration, and typical of the innovative, constantly exciting work BAM has been doing since the 1960s. This was nothing less than a “recreation,” as the program calls it, of  Jean-Marie Villégier’s watershed production of Lully’s Atys, with music by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. This production, organized by the Paris Opera to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Lully’s death, went through 70 performances between its premiere in December 1986 in Prato, and its second revival in 1992, closing finally at BAM after its second run there.

Members of Les Arts Florissants and L’Opera Comique in a scene from Lully’s Atys at the Brooklyn Acadamy of Music Opera House. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Members of Les Arts Florissants and L’Opera Comique in a scene from Lully’s Atys at the Brooklyn Acadamy of Music Opera House. Photo Stephanie Berger.

It not only held audiences transfixed during those years, it made everyone—musicians, theater people, musicologists, critics, and audiences—that French Baroque opera, in particular those of Lully, who had been demonized for generations in the standard histories of opera (1)—is not only a viable form of production, but an extremely potent one, and it opened the gates to performances of other Lully operas, many of them highly successful as well. A month or so after the series of performances at BAM was announced, I was interviewing Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette in connection with their brilliant historicising production of Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, and, when our conversation turned to the past,Atys came up, and Stubbs spoke with some animation and reverence of it and its significance in his career. (He played the lute in Les Arts Florissants.) The original production ofAtys was crucial not only for early music and production specialists, but for Regieoper practitioners as well, since it was in fact a modern (or post modern, if you prefer) production based on historical principles. (2) It was not intended to be a historical production, in the sense of Gilbert Blin’s work with the Boston Early Music Festival. The enormous influence of Villégier’s Atys stemmed above all from its success. A broad audience in Europe and New York loved it and saw it through its 70 performances. At the performance I saw, I ran into a friend who had seen the original and was then enjoying his second performance of the 2011 revival. That is the hold Quinault and Lully’s tragédie en musique has on us in the present day, and it was Villégier’s achievement to enable it to reach modern audiences, for what people experienced in 1986 and in 2011 was not so much a tour de force in recreating bygone styles, as a deeply affecting story of tragic love.*

Fortunately the people I have mentioned were not alone in their nostalgic feelings. A generous and deep-pocketed patron of the arts, Ronald Stanton, had seen it in Paris, and lamented the fact that he could not see it again. In a practical spirit he mentioned this to Karen Brooks Hopkins, Director of BAM at a dinner party, asking how much it would cost to bring it back. She did the math, and he agreed. (“I wanted to give myself a treat,” Stanton says…which he might well do as a wealthy lover of French culture in his eighties.) We Francophiles and lovers of great theater, dance, and music all owe him hearty thanks for his gift. In his essential article, Geoffrey Burgess, who led the oboe section of the orchestra of Les Arts Florissants in the second revival of Atys at BAM, writing in 2006, (3) observed, “Regrettably the likelihood of another revival of Atys diminishes with each passing year.” In this light, Mr. Stanton’s funding brought about something like a miracle, and a significant one at this time, when the influence of the production, as strong as ever, has had twenty years to gestate. It is more than a mere luxury to be able to see it again and to reflect back on it, and for someone like me, who missed the original Atys, to experience it in full. Also, as someone familiar with the strands that came out of it, both historical and modern, it is especially enlightening to witness the source of it all.

The purpose was to recreate the twenty-five year old production as it was. Of its physical being, only some costumes survived in a museum. The sets had to be built again from scratch. A new cast had to go through the same meticulous training in the rhetoric, dramaturgy, and musical style of the Grand Siècle, as their predecessors in 1986. (Back then there were two casts, one French and the other Anglo-American, who developed two separate interpretations of the opera.) And it is a very large cast. One reason Baroque operas are not produced more often is large expense of production, not only for the sets, costumes, and machinery, but for the large number of first-rate soloists required. Instead of the two or three stars of a nineteenth century opera, there could be six or eight parts requiring high virtuosity and dramatic intelligence. The sheer economic means mustered by the French government in the mid-80s is a recurrent theme in the rich body of reviews and scholarly articles which emerged from the production. Louis XIV had even greater financial resources, and even the 125 performers (29 solo singers, 34 in the chorus, 50 instrumentalists, and 12 dancers) gathered for the 1989/92 BAM performances is considerably less than the forces that performed at the premiere at St.-Germain-en-Laye: a chorus of around 55 and perhaps 45 dancers, according to Barbara Coeyman’s estimates (4)—all in relatively intimate spaces. Burgess pointed out that the budget was actually relatively modest, causing Villégier to complain rather often about the compromises he had to make. The machinery used for the gods’ celestial arrivals and departures in France was also not brought over to Brooklyn, resulting, as some critics observed, in an even greater concentration of the action. This was also omitted in the 2011 revival.

Over the years Jean-Marie Villégier has produced an extraordinary number of seventeen-century plays and operas, some classics and some long-forgotten, and he has studied the period since his youth. He knows the language and the dramaturgy intimately, using his knowledge in a particular way of his own, it seems. He drills his casts thoroughly in the specifics of Baroque delivery and production as a preliminary to stagings that are true above all to the spirit of the work. In Atys, we experience the style and atmosphere of the period, but we eventually see through that to the primary story, to which we can respond directly, as myth and a poignant tale of unhappy love. That is the only way love can end, when a mortal comes into conflict with a deity. In this case, the deity, Cybele, is not exempt from the passions experienced also by humans, and she too suffers, as a result of her own actions. Villégier brings this ambiguity home to us by compromising Cybele’s divine attributes. Her costume, in the somber silver and black tonalities of the overall production design, is very grand, but it remains within the scope of human dress to a sufficient degree that Cybele interacts with the mortal she loves, Atys, and her human rival, Sangaride, almost as if she had slipped to a human level. In early productions her divinity and the boundary between her and the humans would have remained quite clear. Sangaride’s father, the god of the river Sangar, would have brought another picture of divine exoticism to the stage, but Villégier has chosen to make him fully human—more than fully human, in fact, a tippling parvenu more obviously at home in the works of Lully’s predecessor at the Palais Royal, Molière. (I’m sure the humor of this body of water absorbing wine with such dispatch was not lost on Villégier.) He saw here a need to remind us of the cultural and social milieu of the opera and to provide a bit of comic relief. On the other hand Atys was especially praised in its time and later, because Quinault, achieving what we think of as the Racinian tragic mode, eliminated comic characters and subplots. Hence Villégier’s flight of fancy seems more than a little perverse. He aim was clearly not fidelity to the text and its intentions, but to present it with his own sophisticated Verfremdungseffekt in respect to Quinault and Lully’s theory and practise. And, of course, it was entertaining, and exquisitely managed and played by Bernard Deletré. If he had overplayed Sangar, or compromised the beauty of his singing, it would have been a disaster. Andrew Porter, whose 1989 New Yorker piece (5) about the production is often cited, detected a certain fear that the audience might grow bored. This in any case gives an impression of Villégier’s personal approach to the opera and of how historical method is more of a means than an end for him.

Villégier also took a free hand with the Prologue, a necessary part of the court opera of the Baroque, which is, I believe, better understood by audiences today than it was in the mid-eighties. Louis took an active hand in the planning and execution of M. Lully’s entertainments, and in some operas his presence is palpable throughout, as in Psyché, another opera about the love of a god for a mortal. Pre-performance lectures and program notes, as well as a straightforward approach on stage can do much to dispel the old prejudice that Prologues are nothing more than empty flattery of the patron. In these works the hierarchical relationship of god and mankind and the ideology of monarchy come together in a Platonic scheme, in which divine thought and action are more than a device or a topos of adulation. In the Prologue to Atys, the ancient gods and the king are arranged in an imaginary space, where they can enjoy a certain community, in this case played out as a querelle between Time and Memory (Fame). It is also the presentation of the opera that follows, a bridge between court life and its conventions and the life of myth, where the gods are entirely at home. For the next four hours, we will live among them.

Members of Les Arts Florissants and L'Opera Comique in the Prologye to Atys. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Members of Les Arts Florissants and L’Opera Comique in the Prologye to Atys. Photo Stephanie Berger.

The curtain rises on a square space, which is lined with tapestries. Standing in a three-sided gallery just below the ceiling, the chorus, as courtiers, look on, as a somewhat nervous M. Lully studies the figure of Time, to whom he gives his customary attribute, the scythe. The Prologue is apparently a rehearsal. While Lully busies himself with details on stage, three charming nymphs dance, and Time and Flora discuss the coming of spring, a hopeful topic on January 10, the date of the premiere. Meanwhile two playful Harlequins appear, dancing mischievously, and doing their best to torment M. Lully. As Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, enters, parading the heroes of antiquity, the Harlequins continue their antics, one taking over the part of Zephir. As Quinault’s Prologue follows its course between thoughts of the seasons, time, tragedy, and praise of the king as a new Mars—the latter uttered by an Iris, who appears as Colombine, much to the delight of the Harlequins. Finally the commedia dell’arte characters retreat to the side, from where they look on irreverently, as Lully arranges Time, Flora, and Melpomene in a neat threesome, to which he adds the puzzled nymphs and heroes, forming a classic Baroque V-formation. He looks on, satisfied, until the Harlequins jump in front and center once again. In pairing Flora and her pastoral nymphs with Melpomene and her heroes, Lully lays down the aesthetic of his work, in which he will combine the pastoral with the tragic. This crossing of genres was likely to attract criticism, and for that reason he states it in the Prologue as a manifesto. So much for Quinault and Lully, but Villégier turns Iris, who not only has the honor of praising the king, but arrives as the messenger of Cybele herself, and as such, enunciates the conclusion of the Prologue, into the pert, tricky servant girl, Colombine. Why this? Geoffrey Burgess has a good deal to say on the subject, and since he was a part of the show, we he says is important, but this is not the place to go into detail about it. Suffice it to say that Villégier wanted to take a light approach here, and to point to the pastoral as a potentially subversive genre, as if it wouldn’t do to take royalist ideology too seriously. But there is more to it as well. Perhaps, thinking of historical context, M. Villégier thought that Lully, try as he might, could not exorcise the spirits of Molière and his Italians. And there is certainly an element of critique in it as well: Villégier does not accept Quinault and Lully at face value. He may even prefer Molière’s way, as most people do. Don’t most English-speakers prefer Shakespeare to Jonson? Villégier does not want his audience to be totally overwhelmed by the wonderful discovery he offers us of French Baroque opera in something close to its full glory.

See excerpts 1-3 (beginning).

The Harlequins gone, Lully dissolves his wedge, and the nymphs and heroes enjoy another dance, until a tall male figure, the Master of Ceremonies, clad in the black and silver of the tragedy of Atys that is to follow, emerges at the back from behind the tapestry, strides boldly to stage center, and with a decisive gesture causes the tapestries to fall. Significantly, the dancer who plays this part, doubles as Alecto, the fearsome being Cybele invokes at the conclusion to drive Atys mad. (At the premiere, the part was danced by the Dauphin, who may well have joined the courtiers and the many other dancers in the Prologue, but not as a Master of Ceremonies, who is Villégier’s invention.). This figure of Alecto is another of Villégier’s liberties, one which has been particularly discussed—or criticized—since he portrays Alecto as a male figure cloaked in black. Alecto, as one of the Furies, is female, and usually visualized in the Renaissance and Baroque as a frightful hag with all sorts of fearsome excrescences. In this production Alecto is unambiguously male and a far more discreet variety of horror—in fact one more likely to invoke the appropriate awe in a modern audience.

I have gone through the Prologue and some others of Villégier’s departures from the original, because they make his approach to Baroque opera stand out with particular clarity. One could call his treatment self-conscious, but only in the sense of “aware.” He is not so much conscious of himself as of spectacle and dramaturgy as historical artefacts. He has setAtys in a physical setting which is suggestively historical, although not punctiliously accurate as Gilbert Blin’s productions are. Beyond that, he has woven some of the historical context into his action in such a way that it makes his audience more conscious of what they are witnessing: a Baroque opera created for specific circumstances over three hundred years ago, but which is built on a core that appeals to our own passions and values. We can participate directly in the characters’ emotions, while we delight in Lully’s music, so beautifully sung and played on period instruments, in the Baroque dance, and in the stylized but poignant gesture, as well as Tommasi and Cauchetier’s splendid sets and costumes, which suggest their models sufficiently strongly to bring us into a bygone world.

Atys as Cybèle's "Grand Sacrificateur". Photo Stephanie Berger.

Atys as Cybèle’s “Grand Sacrificateur”. Photo Stephanie Berger.

After the overture the opera itself begins in a tenebrous  blue ambience, the single set which m. Villégier and designer Carlo Tommasi adopted for the entire action. Two doorways in the back wall and two adjacent doorways at the back of the side walls offer a glimpse of the surrounding spaces—neighboring rooms in a palace—where parallel and ritual actions take place—often with an air of mystery. This setting, and the shifting, focused lighting serve splendidly to support the action and the music. The story is extremely simple, and it progresses in a linear fashion—and swiftly, so it seems. (Contemporaries praised the plot for its directness.) Along the way, we become absorbed in Lully’s beautiful and affecting recitatives and airs, and it is here that we enter the truly timeless realm of Quinault and Lully’s creation. As was the norm, they are more equal in value than they were to become for later generations. The rhythm and flow between them, between the advancement of the plot and the expression of a moment in it, is natural and easy. One kind of “advance” privileged the aria, which became not only more expressive and more of a composition in itself, to the point where recitative was considered superfluous, cut, and replaced by rapturous applause from the audience thrilled by the vocal display. That would seem inappropriate in the economical progression of Quinault’s narrative. The effect is rather likeTristan or some other mature work of Wagner, who sought to reform the overblown arias of his immediate predecessors. And then there’s Lully’s magical way of writing duets, especially for two female voices, rivalling Richard Strauss in its luxuriant sonorities.

The performance was all of a piece: orchestral, soloists, chorus, and dancers all executed their parts with precision and ease. Everyone was so throughly prepared and deeply engaged that technique and effort seemed to disappear. The musical and gestural interaction of the performers was so fluent that they could express the most subtle nuance of expression. This was fully matched by the dancers. The orchestra of Les Arts Florissants—substantial in number—played with their usual exactitude and elegance, as well as their characteristic burnished blend, favored by the Gilman Opera House, which seats almost 2100, almost twice the size of the theater in the Palais Royal. In my seat in the middle of the orchestra, a good deal of the strings’ vigorous but polished attacks came through as well. While the purpose of the revival was to recreate the 1986 production, it must be noted that this referred to the staging alone. Christie’s thinking about Atys has evolved considerably over the years, and we received its full benefit, from faster tempi to alterations in orchestration.

New Yorkers have already had a chance to become acquainted with two of the outstanding singers in the company already. Emmanuelle de Negri (Sangaride) and Ed Lyon (Atys) both earned ovations for their brilliant singing in the Rameau double-bill Les Arts Florissants brought to Alice Tully Hall this past winter. While Lyon was suitably arrogant as Pygmalion back then, he showed Atys’ sensitivity and emotion most affectingly in the Lully. All the characterizations were fully-rounded and rich in telling detail, but of course the principals stood out, including Anna Reinhold’s rich mezzo as Cybèle—a magnificent portrait of desire and grief in a woman of great power. This was some of the finest singing and acting one will find in opera.

Atys (Ed Lyon) and Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri), as the king, Célénus (Nicolas Rivenq), and the goddess, Cybèle (Anna-Reinhold), look on. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Atys (Ed Lyon) and Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri), as the king, Célénus (Nicolas Rivenq), and the goddess, Cybèle (Anna-Reinhold), look on. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Lully’s Atys is as rich and as unforgettable an experience now as it was 20-25 years ago. I can only voice my regret, like our own grand mécène, Mr. Stanton, that I may not see it again. Perhaps, now that sets and costumes have been restored, it’s not over yet. And I do look forward to receiving my copy of the DVD/Blu-Ray disc François Roussillon has produced, which will also be reviewed here. It was a brilliant idea to revive this seminal production. I am grateful finally to have experienced it, as are the others who attended it before. In this context it is worth remembering how Gilbert Blin, when speaking about his major productions of Baroque opera, always confesses how much he’d like to direct the opera again a few years later—differently, of course. The course set by Atys a quarter century ago is in full action.

Buford Norman’s Touched by the Graces: the Libretti of Philippe Quinault in the Context of French Classicism, Birmingham, Alabama, Summa Publications, 2001, has been indispensable throughout this review.

1. Chiefly Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama; New York: Knopf, 1956; revised ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

2. The interview, with O’Dette’s and Stubbs’ views on the 2008 Schwetzingen Festival production of Steffani’s Niobe, which they saw at Covent Garden, shows the extent to which the historical and the Regieoper methods have diverged, as well as the pitfalls of Regieoper, when it is not tempered by thorough study of the materials.

3. Burgess, Geoffrey, “Revisiting Atys: Reflections on Les Arts Florissants’ Production, Early Music, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, pp. 465-478.

4. Coeyman, Barbara, “ Lully’s and Christie’s Atys,” Historical Performance: The Journal of Early Music America, 2.2 (1989), pp. 73-78.

5. Porter, Andrew, “Flourishing Arts,” The New Yorker, June 12, 1989, pp. 90-92.

* Few members of modern audiences will blame Quinault for suppressing, in his observation of the classic bienséances, what is, in his ancient sources, the central element of the myth, Atys’ (or Attis, as it was spelled) self-castration. The story, told by Catullus, Ovid, Pausanias, and others, is an aetiological myth explaining the curious and, to Romans, distasteful custom of the Galli, the priests of Cybele, of arousing themselves into an ecstatic state of devotion and then castrating themselves. Quinault and Lully’s audiences would have known something about their sources, and it is interesting to observe how Quinault subtly worked it into his libretto.

In Lully’s age and in ours, the figure of Time is unthinkable without his scythe, with which he mows down all life, and he is of course shown with it in the illustrations of the Prologue in the 1708 production. The image of Time as an old man and the scythe derive from the ancient identification of Chronos with Kronos, the father of Zeus, who castrated his own father, Ouranos, and cast his testicles into the sea. (Ovid touches on this in his account of Attis in the Fasti, IV.197ff.) Kronos and his scythe were associated with harvest festivals and Chronos with death and regeneration. In this way both figures are connected with the action of the seasons—the central theme of the Prologue.

Following this oblique introduction, the suppressed motif of castration emerges in concrete form in the figure of Alecto, the Erinys, who with her sisters, was born from the blood or semen emitted from Ouranos’ severed testicles into the sea, along with other monsters. Quinault surely introduced Alecto for a reason, in order to retain the meaning in Ovid’s retelling without offending the sensibilities of his audience.

There are doubtless other traces of the sources one could follow in the libretto, but that should suffice for here.






About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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