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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Atys Returns

For the record, BAM frowns upon the absolute monarchy as a tenable form of government. But whatever our grievances with autocrats, it doesn’t mean that, on the occasion of our 150th anniversary, we can’t celebrate with an opera fit for a king. A real king. But more on that in a second.

Jean-Baptiste Lully’s stunning French Baroque jewel Atys (1676) comes to the opera house in just a few days. This isn’t its first visit; the 1989 BAM incarnation provoked such a barrage of superlatives from The New York Times that the paper ran out of adjectives for a week. In 1992, there was another ecstatically-received run.

Photo: Atys, by Pierre Grosbois

The reason was largely conductor William Christie and his nimble period band, Les Arts Florissants. Balanced perfectly between scholarly historian and laissez faire musical poet, Christie is a craftsman of  furious elegance. Ask him to muse over Lully's original manuscripts in the Bibliothèque de l'Opéra de Paris and he will, but then cock an eyebrow when he confesses that the notion of authenticity—a buzzword for early-music types—is "really a rather silly idea." In other words, Christie is refreshingly pragmatic, never pedantic. Attending one of his performances is like being at a refined courtly happening at which everyone knows that everyone else is naked under their clothes. Or imagine an elegant Parisian library in which 17th century treatises come to life and get tipsy together behind the librarian's back. That’s Christie’s sound. Sensuality within studied order. Please go see Atys.

I wish I could tell you to see the Atys gala as well, but I can't; regrettably, it's sold out. But consider that a good thing, since there are 16 months of anniversary celebrations left to go, and it would be a shame to get winded after just the first week. That said, the gala—which features a celebratory dinner with Christie and members of the Atys cast following the Sunday performance—does mark the official beginning of our 150th anniversary celebrations, and suffice it to say that it, too, will be fit for a king.

   Henri Gissey, Louis XIV as Apollo, 1653
Courtesy of Biblioteque Nationale, Paris
So about this king: it’s the “Sun King” king—Louis XIV. Known in its day as “the king’s opera” because of its reputation as Louis’ favorite, Atys had the royal seal of approval several times over. And not because Louis XIV was an easy sell, either; both an avid musician and an obsessive dancer—he earned his “Sun King” nickname after dancing the role of Apollo in a 1651 work by Benserade, and later in Lully’s own Ballet de la Nuit—Louis was hands-on in all matter of courtly arts. No plié—to say nothing of Atys’ flying zephyrs, winged furies, and goddess-piloted chariots—went without scrutiny.  He even required his court servants to study ballet as a symbolic expression of national unity.

We promise we won’t make you do any dancing. But be moved to vigorous applause and we'll love you for it.

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