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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Atys (1676) – Tragédie lyrique in five Acts to a libretto by Philippe Quinault
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. January 1987, Studio 103 de Radio France
Booklet notes and synopsis in English, French, and German
French libretto with English and German translations
HARMONIA MUNDI HAX8901257.59 [3 CDs: 170:39]

In celebration of their 40th anniversary Les Arts Florissants have reissued various items from their back catalogue, including this 1987 recording of Atys, which turned out to be a watershed in the modern rediscovery of French Baroque opera at this still relatively early stage of historically informed performance practice.

The release sounds as fresh and clean as though it had only just been recorded. However, now that the ensemble, under the direction during all this time of their founder, William Christie, have become a prominent and much respected musical brand, as it were, it is interesting to consider this recording over 30 years on.

The performance is airy and graceful, drawing subtle colours in the music like the shades of a Watteau painting. Most of the hallmarks of this ensemble’s style are there – the balance and refinement in the textures, nuanced articulation in the phrasing, and a certain measure of delectable ornamentation in the melody which never becomes frivolous or indulged in for its own sake. But, compared with later recordings of similar repertoire, it is noticeable now how tentative and almost coy Christie’s interpretation is. Even taking into account the fact that Lully’s style is generally more restrained than those composers of French opera who succeeded him in the decades immediately after his death, if this ensemble had recorded the opera today, the instrumental interludes and dances may well have a touch more rhythmic vivacity and impulse. For instance, the typical dotted rhythms of the ‘French’ overture are buoyant, rather than pompous or pounding. The sequence depicting Atys’s sleep, with pleasant dreams, should be as artfully still and amorphous as it is played here, until the terrible dreams interrupt, but other sequences of dances or symphonies might be more vividly contrasted. There might also be more ornamentation in the melodic lines, as the score leaves open the possibility for this on more occasions than it is actually executed here. Far from being criticisms, however, these are merely observations, as the whole performance is consistently polished, with even the furies of hell unleashed in the final Act kept in tight control. Only in this Act is some degree of liberty taken as the continuo cello represents Cybèle’s rage by realising the notes of the bass line in tremolando.

The cast of singers also seems ideal for this repertoire, delivering the long stretches of recitative or arioso which carry the narrative with conversational immediacy and musical pliancy. Guy de Mey exudes a masterly humility in the title role, serving as the loyal priest of the goddess Cybèle, who dares not reveal the fact that he loves the nymph Sangaride who is betrothed to his friend, the Phrygian king Célénus. If Agnès Mellon is affably direct as the nymph – just as she is also when embodying Iris in the allegorical Prologue – then Guillemette Laurens is scarcely less so as the goddess in bringing nobility and clarity to the role, particularly as she reflects on her own feelings for Atys in a soliloquy at the end of Act IV. She ramps that up in her jealous rage at the beginning of the next Act as she vows to punish him and Sangaride, after having discovered their love for each other.

Jean-François Gardeil characterises Célénus with a certain degree of excitability and purposefulness as he anticipates his marriage to Sangaride, whilst her father, the River Sangar, and his accompanying band of divinities of the rivers and springs are rumbustiously comic, providing light relief in a drama that is otherwise lyrical and serious. Other parts are as sensitively and intelligently performed here, with honours in particular going to Noémi Rime’s somewhat sassy Mélisse, Jacques Bona’s stalwart Idas, and Monique Zanetti’s Flore, as sweetly fragranced as the flowers this deity represents.

The reissue comes as a package with the discs in the pockets of a CD-sized book. Most of this is taken up with a facsimile of the original French libretto, with translations in modern typeset. The background notes and synopsis are brief, however, so there is not very much information about the opera’s provenance. Nevertheless, this is still as good a place to start as any in exploring the work of Lully or the French Baroque, of which this composer was one of the pioneers.

Curtis Rogers

Le Temps – Bernard Deletré
Flore – Monique Zanetti
Zéphirs – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Gilles Ragon
Melpomène – Arlette Steyer
Iris – Agnès Mellon
Atys – Guy de Mey
Idas – Jacques Bona
Sangaride – Agnès Mellon
Doris – Françoise Semellaz
Cybèle – Guillemette Laurens
Mélisse – Noémi Rime
Célénus – Jean-François Gardeil
Le Sommeil – Gilles Ragon
Morphée – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Phobétor – Bernard Deletré
Phantase – Michel Laplénie
Un songe funeste – Stephan Maciejewski
Sangar – Bernard Deletré
Trio – Isabelle Desrochers, Paul Fouchécourt, Véronique Gens

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