Christophe Rousset's Lully series continues with Atys

This is an unmissable release from first to last, and the (current) jewel in the crown of Rousset's Lully opéra series

Christophe Rousset's Lully series continues with Atys

This is Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques' 13th Lully opera recording. That should tell us something about the musicians' immersion in this repertoire; and how it shines in this Atys. There is sheer sonic beauty here, for sure; but there is also a complete understanding of dramatic situation, resulting in recitatives and ariosos that are gripping musical statements in themselves. No mere linking passages; instead, suddenly the whole of Lully's glorious edifice is illuminated.

It is illuminated from within, too; the myriad colours available to Les Talens Lyriques. There is real immediacy here: even more than in William Christie's Atys and more bite - a relevant comparison as the harpsichordist on that recording was one Christophe Rousset, nearly four decades ago! Note that Classical Explorer also reviewed William Christie's DVD/Bluray Atys from L'Opèra Comique (with Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Cybèle and Bernard Richter as Atys).

First staged in 1676 at the King's residence at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the story is taken from Ovid via Lully's frequent librettist, Philippe Quinault. It was to become known as ‘The King’s Opera”. In this version of the myth, Atys, a Phrygian deity, Quinault changes Ovid's ending (Atys becomes a pine tree for the sin of resisting the Goddess Cybèle’s love), moving the plot into the realm of politics and hurtling towards a tragic conclusion. In a nutshell, the goddess Cybèle, seduced by Atys’s beauty, entrusts him with the guardianship of her temples, demanding in return that the young man remains faithful. Atys soon forgets his promise and falls in love with the nymph Sangaride. To punish him, Cybèle has the young woman killed. Driven mad, Atys mutilates himself.

As Rousset himself has said,

“French audiences expected drama – they wanted to swept away in the plot and by incredible characters. Lully was a genius of the theatre. The need to infuse dramatic tension, resounding emotion and humanity has been at the heart of my mission. Then miracles can happen but ones rooted in the skill of each performer. My guide has been to retain the principle of dramatic purity to bring out the potential of the libretto and musical alchemy. Louis XIV’s opera reveals a human and deeply moving drama.”

Here's a video to give you an idea:

Although I have a preference for Christie's Bernard Deletré as Le Temps (Time) in the Prologue over Rousset's Olivier Cesarini, there is no doubt that, as the “Chœur des Heures,” the Chœur de chamber de Namur is preferable to Christie's choir. When it comes to the Flore, the representative of Spring, for Rousset it is the wonderful Marie Lys, who is preferable to Christie's Monique Zanetti; Lys, who as is typical in Baroque opera takes a number of roles in this piece, has shone before on Classical Explorer: most recently, replacing an indisposed Sandrine Piau in Insula's Messiah in Paris, but also with Rousset in a tremendous concert as part of last year’s Itinérire Baroque (Ave Maris Stella), not to mention her contribution as Cleone and Cérès in another Lully opéra, Thesée.

There are zero weak links in Rousset's cast. Apolline Raï-Westphal (who also sang in the Rousset recording of Thesée) is a stunningly pure Melpomène in the Prologue, preferable even to Christie's Arlette Stayer; Gwendoline Blondeel as Iris (and previously seen on this site as Aurore in William Christie's DVD/Bluray of Mondonville’s miraculous Titon et l'Aurore) is the perfect complement, the two together almost aviation their purity.

As Atys himself, Reinoud Van Mechelen is beyond criticism. He was stunning in that Titon; since then he has impressed in Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's Céphale et Procris in the Hercules Room at Versailles (reviewed by myself for Opera Now, September 2023). Together with Romain Bockler's Idas, they make Act 1 Scene 1 stunning; although I have to admit a slight preference for Christie's Jacques Bona in the latter role, his voice that bit more beautiful yet remaining completely within Lullian bounds. But Van Mechelen is the finest of Atys interpreters. The sheer nuance he brings to the words (always delivered with crystal clear clarity) in his first act interaction with Sangaride (scene 5) is utterly remarkable, and together they illustrate perfectly how Lully's recitative can be delivered with a perfect dramatic sense. Just as in Mozart operas - and with, to my ears, an equivalent level of genius - Lully's recitative is ever-varied and ever perfect.

The exchanges between Atys and Sangaride lamenting their lot is tremendously touching; an extended passage sustained by Lully's inspired lines and culminating in the chorus' call to Cybèle, “Queen of the Gods”.

Cybèle herself is Ambroisine Bré, one of the finest of Rousset's regular singers, her “Venez thus dans le Temple” (Come, all of you, into my Temple) the epitome of confidence and style. Bré is radiant of voice; she has impressed previously as Melanto (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria), also on the Château de Versailles Spéctacles series under Stéphane Fuget, in the title role of Rousset's Psyché (again from Versailles), as Galatée (Lully's Acis et Galatée, Rousset, on Aparté) and finally, as Climene in Cavalli's L'Egisto. Her scene with Célénus in the second act is riveting; as is the ensuing exchange with Melissa (Raï-Westphal); the expressive weight of the appoggiatura seems particularly effective here.

Lys remains at the apex of singers in her incarnation as Sangaride (in love with Atys, but due to marry King Celenus). Lys also sang Flore in the Prologue; note that Christie in his recording divides roles between his singers differently. His Sangaride is Agnès Mellon (excellent, especially in the tightness of her ornaments), who there also sings Iris.

The contrast between the voices of Philippe Estèphe and Van Mechelen is perfect; their scene that opens the second act is dramatically convincing, to say the least. Estephe featured in both Lully Acis and Psyché reviews on this site; and also took the role of “Le Dancaire” in Strasbourg's remarkable concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen in April 2023. Together, Estèphe and Van Mechelen significantly exceed the emotions in Chrisie's recording (Guy de Mey as Atys and Jean-François Gardeil, Célénus), where there seems to be attempts at beautifying.surface that needs no added cosmetics.

There are many moments of pure magic in this recording; try the duet between Sangaride and Doris (Blondeel again), tender, hushed, intense, and the perfect illustration of how the continuo group can shape the drama perfectly. The scene ends with the most delicious coming together of the voices, “Un amour malheureux”; An unhappy love). Arguably, Christie's singers in his recording (Mellon and François Semellaz) sound too homogenous against Rousset's Lys and Blondeel.

The third act, utterly remarkable in and of itself, begins in profoundest sadness, incipient heartbreak writ large in Rousset's performance (interestingly, Christie's rather more delicate approach put me in mind of Purcell - his could almost be an out-take from Dido!). It's fascinating here how Lully has Idas (Romain Bockler) and Doris (Blondeel) sing together as one “voice,” as if their ideas are in perfect accord, against Atys’ single line, until all three join together for the scene's concluding moments (with the sentiment, “Love always outweighs all else”. Van Mechelen really comes into his own in his scene immediately thereafter, at the close of which he succumbs to sleep and is visited by Morpheus (Nick Pritchard), Phobétor (Cesarini) and Phantasmus (Antonin Rondepierre). In between comes one of Lully's most magical instrumental passages, supremely performed by Les Talens Lyriques, who lead so naturally into Le Sommeil's introduction (Kieran White) to the dream zone and its astonishing “Baneful Dream,” in which the Namur choir seem to have a ball with their Devilish activities. Rousset holds the dynamic level constantly below mezzo-piano; it s as if time itself is suspended. This is masterly direction, as the counterpoint between voices, so ravishing in itself, is performed with the utmost expertise and sense of style.

Rousset certainly gives the most intense third act of Atys I have encountered; it is quite exhausting to listen to, as the magic never stops; the concentration of his players and singers is remarkable. Fine though Christie's Cybèle is (Guillemette Laurens, it is Bré who now owns this role.

The fourth act is where the action really takes place: Atys announces that Cybèle forbids the wedding of Sangaride to Celenus; he then ubducts Sangaride, This does not mean there is no place for repose; Lully creates a tae try of warp and weft, expertly tracked by Rousset; try their setting up of atmosphere prior to the opening of the fourth scene of the fourth act (a drought interchange between Atys and Sangaride).

There is no missing the shift of mood for the fifth and final act (both acts contained on the final disc: the opera is issued in three 'volumes' within one box). The intensity is cranked up to the maximum: listen to the power of the sustained bass notes in Cybèle’s “Toi, qui porte partout / et la rage et l’horreur” (You who bear both rage / and horror everywhere). It's extraordinary; as is the power of the Chorus of Phrygians lamenting that Atys “is slaying the one he loved” (he's been bewitched by the infernal deity Alecton). Listen to Bré's variety of declamation in this passage, towards the end of the opera:

The continuo group, so important in this piece, comprises Emmanuel Jacques (bass violin), Myriam Rignol (viola da gamba), Karl Nyhlin and Magnus Andersson (lute/guitar), Korneel Bernolet (harpsichord/organ) and Rousset himself (harpsichord, plus direction).

These very forces performed Atys the Festival Resonanzen, Vienna on 20 January and the Opera Royal in Versailles on 22 January. This is an unmissable release from first to last, and the (current) jewel in the crown of Rousset's Lully opéra series.

Christophe Rousset's recording of Atys is available via Amazon at this link.

Below are Spotify links to both Rousset and Christie: