NEW YORK Whenever Louis XIV needed some opera to sweeten the air in
his new palace at Versailles, he snapped his royal fingers and his favorite
composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, sprang to the task. Matters operatic aren’t so
favorable around Paris these days, I hear; still, the rich fruits of Louis’
patronage remain. One of the richest, the opera “Atys,” which dates from
1676 and  can still be made to sound fresh, novel and altogether thrilling,
has in its recent restoration been generally judged as the best operatic event
in Paris in recent, or even distant memory. It was greeted with comparable
acclaim this past week, when the Paris-based fashioners of this miraculous
restoration played a four-performance engagement, sold out to every last
seat, at the Brooklyn Academy.
Opera in the French high Baroque was, and remains, an art unto itself. Italy
lay captive to a grandiloquent if vapid repertory created to gladden the
hearts and throats of virtuoso singers and their fans (whose descendants
pack the standing-room areas at the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas
today). The Italian-born Lully (originally Lulli) ingratiated himself into a
high post at Louis’ court, and shrewdly read the French taste, which inclined
more toward theater and dance than to flamboyant music. Together with the
poet Philippe Quinault he invented an opera for France that partook
fervently of the high lyric tragedy of the playwrights Corneille and Racine,
and still deployed itself in the simple, clear rhythms of the popular dance
steps at the time. Legend has it that Louis himself often participated in the
dance numbers, and I’ll leave you to imagine George Bush onstage at the Met
in, say, the Grand March from “Aida.”
For “Atys” Quinault fashioned an elegant, moving paraphrase of the
classic myth of Cybele, Goddess of Earth, thwarted in her love for the
shepherd Atys, whom she then drives mad whereupon he kills her rival
Sangaris and, upon regaining his sanity (still there?) realizes his crime, kills
himself and is transformed into a pine tree. For all this complexity, it is a
gorgeous text, and it moves trippingly, in simple rhyming couplets that Lully
fashioned into elegant music that can still hold an audience spellbound over
its nearly four-hours duration. The French have a word for all this: [ITAL
sensibilite. [ENDITAL It does not translate as easily as it looks.
Anyhow, the  musical and poetic wonders of “Atys” are easily sampled,
in the complete Harmonia Mundi recording by the same forces that restored
the opera in Paris in 1987 and   brought it last week to Brooklyn: William
Christie and his ensemble of early-music specialists called “Les Arts
Florissants.” Product of a typically abstract, scholarly Ivy League musical
education (“where we were told,” he says, “that no gentleman ever
actually touches an instrument”) he moved to Paris in 1972 and founded
his group some years later.
The beauty of the Arts Florissants performances (the name is from a vocal
piece by Marc’Antoine Charpentier, Lully’s great rival) is not their slavish
revival of exact Baroque performance rubrics, but their passion to dig out
the life force in this music and translate it intact into contemporary terms.
The sounds of, for example, their 53-member orchestra that came over with
the singers, is not merely the exoticism of ancient instruments, but the
enormous gusto of the playing. (Another applicable, untranslatable French
word: [[ITALelan. [ENDITAL
As they honored the music, so also did this marvelous, seemingly airborne
group fashion a likeness of the sights that this kind of music inspires. The
cast was costumed, not in the uniform, blank robes of a typical gods-and-
goddesses production, but in a magnificent array of court clothes from
Lully’s own time, exquisitely fashioned and tailored as if to be worn by
nobles and not mere opera singers. The set was, similarly, a room in a grand
palace, its walls done to resemble priceless travertine marble, its open doors
affording a view of further rooms and exquisitely paneled corridors.
Two casts of principals alternated in the Brooklyn performances. I had
heard the American-English contingent, headed by the marvelous light tenor
Howard Crook, at an earlier performance in Louis’ own theater at Versailles.
This time I heard the Franco-Belgian cast, the one on the recording, with the
wonderfully lithe, stylist Guy de Mey in the name role and the extraordinary
dramatic soprano Guillemette Laurens as the lovelorn Cybele. The dancing
was sublimely executed by a fine small group called “Ris et Danceries”;
my highest compliment would be to state that you simply couldn’t tell where
the music left off and the stage movement began.
I cannot see, in other words, how a night at the opera could ever be any
better than this.