Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force. These days, though, there are young people among the regulars : a sign that appreciation of Lieder excellence is most certainly alive and well at the Wigmore Hall. .

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

In the first half of the 19th century, Spontini’s La Vestale was a hit. Empress Josephine sponsored its premiere, Parisians heard it hundreds of times, Berlioz raved about it and Wagner conducted it.

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

An intelligent updating and outstanding performance of the title role lead to a shattering climax in Puccini's Japanese opera



Jean-Baptiste Lully
28 Sep 2011

Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music

In 1989, William Christie’s ten-year-old Paris-based baroque troupe, Les Arts Florissants, brought a staged production to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first time, Lully’s Atys.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Atys

Cybèle: Anna Reinhold; Sangaride: Emmanuelle de Negri; Mélisse: Ingrid Perruche; Atys: Ed Lyon; Célénus: Nicolas Rivenq; Dieu du Sommeil: Paul Agnew; Le Temps, le fleuve Sangar: Bernard Deletré. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, performance of September 23.

Above: Jean-Baptiste Lully


I would say his “little known” Atys, but all of Lully’s operas were little known back then. The production was beyond elegant, somewhere in the supernal realms where the goddess Cybèle may dwell when she’s at home. It would have knocked Louis XIV’s satin knee-breeches off, never mind his gold-clocked silk stockings.

Atys knocked New York for a loop as well. The hitherto obscure (State-side) company became a must-see on their roughly annual returns to town among the baroque opera cognoscenti, with Atys again in 1992, and for Charpentier’s Medée (which cemented Lorraine Hunt’s hold on the public ear and eye), Monterverdi’s Ritorno di Ulisse, Rameau’s Les Boréades, Handel’s Hercules and Purcell’s The Faerie Queene, to mention but a few. This year, Atys returned (as from the realm of the august dead), as regal as ever. Lully’s masterpiece, four long hours of it, completely sold out the beaux-arts BAM opera house for five performances. That’s rather more than ten thousand tickets, and they went quickly. We happy few New York cognoscenti!

Christie’s group, with their scenic splendor, their sublime musicianship and choreography (choreographed singers no less!), their attention to detail, their international casts and tours are one of the reasons opera is once again a headline art form. My date thought they should be declared a UNESCO cultural landmark, like the Parthenon or Machu Picchu, protected from desecration by international law, but they’ve been such a success everywhere that hardly seems necessary. In another hundred years perhaps, should their popularity wane.

Atys, premiering in 1676, was Lully’s fifth opera and Louis XIV’s favorite. As with most of the others, the story is taken from classical mythology, with whimsical alterations. Philippe Quinault’s libretto is a triumph of sensibilité, the refinement of subtle gradations of emotion that had become chic in France (in the tragedies of Corneille and Racine and the novels of Madame de Lafayette) and was to linger there for centuries and influence everybody. Quinault’s verses for Lully’s Armide et Renaud were perfectly suitable for Gluck to create his Armide one hundred years later using the same libretto, and the subtle discussions of this or that degree of being in love are familiar to readers of Laclos, Stendhal and Proust. Even modern and outrageous French writers, such as Genet or Houellebecq, have delighted in constructing their shockers on these traditional expectations.

But in their Atys, Les Arts Florissants, whatever modern extremes it has gone to on other occasions, has attempted a staging, within the parameters of modern opera theater, in the high baroque style, the style of the then brand-new chateau of Versailles. The set is a square box of faux black marble with a Rorschach of white flaws on each wall. The doors are deep set, so that (in the spectacular ritualistic conclusion of the first act) we behold a procession of handmaidens of the goddess, costumed as baroque nuns in fur-trimmed white surplices, each holding a sprig of pine (the symbol of Cybèle), appearing and proceeding through distant halls with the rhythm of the stately music (while much action occurs in the foreground), and (we are led to imagine) winding through the halls of the palace to enter at last stage left, one after another, heralding the arrival (“La déesse déscende!” cry each of the characters in turn, throughout the act), just before the curtain falls, of the Queen of the Gods of ancient Phrygia, where the tale is set.

Even before Act I, we have been introduced to a little pageant in which Time (blue-faced, purple-stockinged, scythe at the ready), Flora (“If I wait until Spring, there is hardly any time for flowers before it’s over!”—the opera premiered in January) and Melpomene, the arrogant Muse of Tragedy, bicker over the nature of the piece to be presented in a tradition reminiscent of the operas of Monterverdi and Cavalli, Lully’s predecessors—and parodied endlessly, as late as Prokofiev. Act I introduces the conflict: The river Sangarius (grand old Bernard Deletré, ruddy-faced and hollow-voiced to imply drunkenness) has given his lovely daughter Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri, of the wistful soprano) to Célénus (Nicolas Rivenq, a most imposing baritone), who is the King of Phrygia, as his armored costume and plumed hat make plain. Sangaride, however, is in love with delicate Atys (Ed Lyon, as stiff and morose in this role as he was hilarious playing Rameau’s Actéon the last time Les Arts were in town). Atys feigns indifference to the emotions of the heart, but in fact he is secretly obsessed—with Sangaride! It takes several confidantes several scenes to straighten all this out, but even French courtiers break down and confess the truth eventually. Happy ending to a short opera, right?

Wrong. The goddess Cybèle (Anna Reinhold, a fine, dignified soprano but a bit youthful for this—she lacks the maturity, the emotional intensity of voice one desires such a role), great mother of Asia (roughly what is now known as Turkey) and queen of the gods, has descended to name a new high priest. She has chosen Atys, who therefore spends the rest of the opera in the long buttoned cassock of a court monsignor. Her real reason for doing so is that she has fallen, hard, for this mere mortal. Bored with prayers, rituals, human sacrifices, she wants love, and sends an act-full of dreams to explain this to neurotic Atys, and threaten dire consequences if he does not return her affections. But as we already know, Atys loves Sangaride. Does this plot remind you of Roberto Devereux, Maria Tudor and other operas of unrequited power ladies? It cannot end well.

In the last act, seated amidst sinister baroque candles (Les Arts Florissants always does black magic beautifully: remember Lorraine Hunt’s Medée and Joyce Di Donato in Hercules?), Cybèle invokes Alecto, goddess of madness. One must say a word about the wigs here (the work of Daniel Blanc): Everybody, singers, dancers, mimes, wears at least one, and they are superb, curly, stiff or flowing, horned or crested, suitable for pirouettes or coronets or plumed hats, with fontanges, lacy headdresses named for a mistress of Louis XIV, for many of the ladies. Wigs were de rigueur at Versailles, hence throughout noble Europe. When, at the crisis, Atys and Sangaride appear with hair askew, we know they have, well, flipped their wigs. Sure enough, maddened Atys stabs Sangaride (offstage) and then, on realizing what he has done, himself (ditto). Cybèle, obliged to live forever but filled with regret, transforms Atys into the emblematic pine, green when all other trees are bare, that we have seen on the faux tapestry stage curtain all night. (In the actual rites of this goddess, her priests, or galli, would become frenzied and castrate themselves. That would never do at Versailles. Suicide might be against the Church, but it was respectable. Ancient Romans did it all the time, you know.)

Into this short, sharp story, Lully (once he had got his king and dancing partner’s attention) threw every instrument in his arsenal: violins and theorbos, recorders of every shape and kind, solos and chorales, court dances and folk dances and ritual processions and commedia dell’arte mime, and every variety of instrumentation and vocalization 1675 had to offer. From a less inspired composer or a less inspired company it would have been too much. Keeping the lights on and playing cards or sipping champagne during the entire performance no doubt helped back then. These particular traditions have not been maintained.

Jean-Marie Villégier’s production, aimed oh-so-graciously at us (we enact Le Roy Soleil for the duration), lures us into a forgotten world of supreme majesty. Carlo Tommasi’s scenery and Patrice Cauchetier’s costumes—so much black and gray and silver in so many different patterns and textures, and then blazing colors when at last they arrive in the dream sequence—are clearly inspired by the sumptuous paintings of France’s most golden age. Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin have created hours of divertissement in the dances, the charades, the mime episodes, the twirls of the chorus and the soloists in the dainty, high-heeled dance styles of the era. In such an elaborate banquet of delights, each new course is a marvel, teasing yet another unsuspected receptor on our visual and aural taste buds. It goes on and on until one thinks one is beyond surprise—and then out come the Italian or Spanish dances, or the onstage instrumental ensembles in full costume, or the vengeful goddess in volatile transformation. Lully’s invention never flags—why should our attention?

In Act IV, for example, just as one might be tempted to check one’s watch, the frustrated Sangaride is consoled by two friends, Idas and Doris (gallantly sung by Marc Mauillon and Sophie Daneman), and after the hours of stately accompanied declamation that makes up most of the text, they suddenly gave us an a cappella trio of serene melodic charm, their voices so perfectly blended and twined and supportive that one almost did not notice the orchestra had ceased to join them. (Lully had written an entire a cappella mass for four voices; he knew where his talents lay.)

Lully’s operas, like Monteverdi’s and Cavalli’s and such imitators of Lully as Conradi and Rameau, do not clearly break the musical fabric into “numbers” and “dialogue.” This problem, which has been basic to opera from the very beginning and is susceptible of any number of solutions, produced, in the seventeenth century a more melodious declamation with perhaps fewer tuneful interruptions, the arias and concerted passages that occur to us when we think of opera. There are fewer “buttons” for concentration-breaking applause. This makes the presentation of Lully a more focused, more complete, more, well, Wagnerian occasion.

This engaging texture also has the effect of making these older operas seem more appealing, more modern to contemporary audiences than does the opera seria of the succeeding age, where yards of secco recitative are interrupted by (usually long-awaited) melodic statements of single or double static emotional states by virtuoso singers, who are thus highlighted and, in a sense, divorced from the larger drama. A master baroque singer (I’m recalling David Daniels in particular; lovers of the form will all have special favorites) can make the recits as intense, as thrilling, as the arias, but generally, recits are a slog. After the “reforms” of Gluck, Mozart and Rossini, the melodies emerged imperially from their formal cocoons, annexing and colonizing more and more of the action, until the recit-free, through-composed dramatic treatments of Wagner and Puccini evolved. This took time, but it was what a more drama-conscious public desired, as well as what they were gradually trained to expect on the opera stage. Melodious, excerptable arias are now the exception, though there are enough archaizing composers around who try to produce them. (I am thinking of Figaro’s dreary “patter song” in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles and the misbegotten “New York aria” in Picker’s American Tragedy. But there have been good ones, too: Baby Doe’s “Letter Song;” the girls’ duet in the opening scene of Harbison’s Great Gatsby.)

Therefore, Lully’s stock is rising. Les Arts Florissants, who have materially led this restoration, revisit their own past, but their achievements and the leadership of William Christie have not paused to take a breath. We may expect more glory; they have given us every reason to do so.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):