A total opera that combines fantastic sets, costumes, dance, singing and acting skills. The singing by all the cast is superb, especially by Stephanie d,Oustrac as Cybele and Bernard Richter as Atys. The production is authentic to the period and the music is crisply played by William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants. It is truly a pleasure to watch and admire the production that brings this opera to life and makes one want to watch it regularly. The only drawback is that the english subtitles are too small so that they sometimes merge into the background. But this does not merit taking off a star because the quality of the production is so high.
In contrast to most of William Christie's recent productions reviving forgotten gems of early French Baroque opera, this 2011 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1676 opera Atys for the Opéra Comique in Paris is rather more faithful to the period and tradition of the original work than usual - but not slavishly so. Director Jean-Marie Villégier's aims for period authenticity in the set and costume designs, capturing a sense of the elaborate extravagance of the work - in musical as well as in production terms - without going overboard and cluttering the stage with unnecessary props and effects. The costumes are actually those of 17th century nobility, not the robes and tunics of classical antiquity in a pastoral setting that would have been more likely employed for this subject, so the intention is clearly to give a semblance of the opera in its time rather than how it would actually have been staged.
In the same vein, there is just one all-purpose grand palatial room used for all three acts, which gives sufficient room for the large cast of singers, dancers and chorus to play out the comedy, drama and tragedy of the work, conveying everything that is required through the quality of the musical and vocal presentation. The splendour and the sense of the work is thus preserved, without the need for programme footnotes to explain the tradition or make excuses for peculiarities of the production design. The plot and subject seems a typical situation for a long-winded opera seria, but even though Atys does indeed run to some three and a quarter hours with lots of tragic bemoaning of the cruel twists of fate and the unfathomable will of the gods, there's a wonderful continuous flow to the singing which purposefully carries the drama and the inner feelings of the characters forward in an admirably concise and direct fashion. There are no longeurs, despite the length, the opera having a wonderful rhythm and structure of its own, the ariosos varying in pace and being broken up with ballets and the most beautiful choral arrangements. Even little divertissements, such as the prelude and the quite stunning Sleep quartet of Act III ("Dormons, dormons tous") have a dramatic purpose, Le Sommeil arriving to transport Atys to the realm of Cybèle. All of this serves to make Atys dramatically engaging at the same time as being spellbindingly entertaining.
It's not just the interpretation and performance of the music that are successful however, but rather how every element of the production, direction and choreography falls into place with no jarring elements, creating a consistent and fluid dramatic and musical wholeness. It's within that perfect setting that the performance of Stéphanie d'Oustrac stands out all the more vividly like a sparkling jewel (you can see her also in another Christie production of Lully's Armide). Her singing is beautiful, perhaps no more exceptional than the other fine performers in the principal roles, but in her acting, in the rush of emotions that flit across her face and rest in her eyes, she brings that much needed humanity that is essential to prevent the opera being just a dry museum curiosity and instead, as Villégier accurately describes it in the documentary feature, "a catharsis of passions" that is recognisable to any viewer of any age or period. It's all the more impressive that it is a goddess who displays such passions and, likewise, that those all too recognisable human passions can be found in a work that is almost 350 years old.
It's remarkable too how such an old work can look and sound so fresh on the impeccable High Definition presentation of the Blu-ray release. The beautifully lit image captures all the beauty in the detail of the costumes and the production design, allowing the camera to linger on the expressions of the singers at crucial moments. Nothing is missed. The usual PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are provided and have a similar crystal clarity with fineness of detail. The surround mix in particular on this release makes great use of the additional spacing and separation of instruments. A two-disc set, disc one contains the entire opera, with disc two given over to an interesting 100-minute documentary reuniting most of the creators involved in the original 1987 production recreated here in 2011. Subtitles are in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. A very impressive set of a production that (much like Christie's stunning Les Indes galantes) truly deserves to be retained for posterity like this.
Jean-Baptiste Lully was born in Florence in 1632. In 1646, when he was 14, he moved to France where he became valet de chambre to Mlle de Montpensier who was seeking an Italian servant for her to improve her conversation in that language. Although he must clearly have studied music and composition, we know very little about his life over the next six years except that he took lessons from Francois Robertday, Nicolas Gigault and Nicolas Metru. In 1653 he danced in the Ballet de la Nuit alongside King Louis XIV who was very impressed with him and appointed him as court composer. In those days the conductor of an orchestra did so with the help of a long rod and, in 1687, Lully accidentally struck himself on top of his foot with the rod. The wound became infected and he died of blood poisoning, which killed many people in those days, which was well before the age of antibiotics.
Lully, a prolific composer of a variety of musical works including lots of ballet music, composed at least 13 operas and Atys was composed in 1676. In a way he sort of followed on in the Monteverdi (1567-1643) tradition, although he had a style all of his own, which is clearly envisaged in this outstanding production of Atys. As with all these early operas the staging is simple and there's a great deal of standing around with the characters singing to each other, signifying conversation. However, lots of dancing is mixed in with the singing in the most attractive and delightful fashion. The costumes, which are meticulously true to what would have been worn in court circles in the mid Seventeenth Century, are an important feature in enhancing the watch-ability of this well produced work in Blu-Ray, which comes across both picture-clear and with first-rate sound quality.
As seems to have been the custom with regard to most early operas, this work involves a large cast plus chorus and dancers. Bertnard Richter as Atys, Stephanie d'Oustrac as the Goddess Cybele and Emmanuelle de Negri as Sangarude are all superb in the three leading rolls with excellent backup from the rest of the performers. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I get the impression that all those involved are enjoying themselves immensely like as if they feel very much at home in what they are doing. This work is adapted from the ancient Greek legend about how Atys commits suicide after being induced by the hellish deity Alecton, under the orders of of Cybele, to kill his beloved Sangaride whom he mistakes for a monster, after which, when he regains normality, he is horrified and commits suicide. Devastated at having instigated this process, Cybele decrees that Atys will live on as a pine tree, which is emphasised by branches of Scots pine* being handed out to the whole cast who parade around with them singing the while. William Christie is the director of music. It would be hard to improve on this wonderful Opera Comique. production of this great mid Seventeenth Century opera.
*Scots pine. They look like Scots pine, which, incidentally, is one of only three species of conifer native to Great Britain, the other two being yew and juniper. All the other conifer species we see around have been introduced into the UK mostly over the past 300 years.
One of my favouite blue rays ever. If you like this kind of music, it's a must. The picture quality is astounding, despite some minor issues when the camera is in motion. I appreciate especially the historical rendition of the work. I am never convniced by producers who want to show us old works the modern way. I am one of the guys who suspect that they just want to save money with modern sets. No money was saved here, believe me!
This is a stunning performance of one Lully's masterpieces. Excellent performance all the way through. This is bound to make you cry because of the sheer epicness of this event.
I have a minor technical issue with the blu-ray: Moderate to rapid movement across the screen seems ghosted, or in low framerate. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it, but at least the quality in stationary camera or slow movement is flawless. My setup: Panasonic DMP-BDT310 and Samsung PS-64D8000.
Everything is perfect about this opera: the singers are excellent, the costumes are wonderful, the music sublime, the stage is elegant and very french. This is total joy. Bernard Richter is a revelation. I have never seen an opera production so perfect in my life.
Just buy it, OK? There isn't really a single weak point in the whole production: costume, sets, music, dance are all well-nigh perfect, and the eye and the ear are both ravished. If you have only ever listened to CDs of Lully's music, you'll be astonished to see it in context. His operas were the multi-media extravaganzas of their day, and this DVD gives you a pretty good idea of what the toal effect must have been like.