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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Opera Review: Here Comes the Sun King

Les Arts Florissants revive Atys at BAM.
Ed Lyon as Atys (kneeling) mourns the death of Sangaride (Emanuelle de Negri, foreground)
as Cybéle (Anna Reinhold) looks on. Photo by Stephanie Bamberger courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened their 2011 season with the welcome return of Les Arts Florissants, the period performance troupe specializing in French opera of the 1700s. The program: a revival of Atys, the wildly successful fourth opera of Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to Louis XIV.

Today, Lully is better remembered for his ignominous death than for his masterful work writing the first French operas: then called tragédie en musique. (He contracted gangrene after wounding his own foot with a large steel-tipped conducting baton.) But a listen to Atys reveals tightly constructed melodies, clever contrapuntal writing and an over-arching musical vision that looks as far forward as Wagner, Debussy, and even Philip Glass.

Composed and premiered in 1676, Atys is a long way from what most people think of as opera. The purpose of this classical drama is to establish an allegory (using classical figures) to reinforce how awesome Louis XIV was. The result is part music drama and part political statement, and the production (which features a ballet with four gilt-clad avatars of the Sun King) reinforces this idea.

Ed Lyon sang the title role, a priest of the goddess Cybéle who draws her wrath when he falls in love with the mortal (not to mention engaged) Sangaride. Although the character does not develop the same way as later operatic figures, (spending much of one act literally sleeping on the stage) Mr. Lyon shone in the final act, bringing passion and pathos to the murder-suicide that concludes his dramatic arc.

Soprano Emmanuelle de Negri impressed as Sangaride, the luckless lover of Atys. Her grand love duet with Atys in Act IV was one of the opera's strongest moments, as the mythological marble dressing was brushed aside to reveal the human drama at the core of this work. Her voice melded beautifully with Mr. Lyon's providing blueprints for almost every French operatic love duet that followed Atys.

The goddess Cybéle was sung by the stunning mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold, serene, mysterious and ultimately enraged at Atys' betrayal. Her final peroration over his corpse anticipated the last scene of Götterdämmerung by some 200 years. Bass-baritone Bernard Deletré also had a strong evening, in the duel role of Le Temps (the allegorical figure of Time) and the drunken river god Sangar.

Les Arts Florissants director William Christie conducted, drawing crisp sounds and warm melodies. Lully employed unconventional configurations, dropping the strings altogether to create marches of percussion and wind. Most unusual was the Act IV ballet, a rambunctious affair of jesters and ladies accompanied only by voices and an onstage guitar.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.