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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Les Arts Florissants and BAM: A 30-Year Romance

What does an American in Paris do? If you are William Christie, you start a music ensemble excavating long-ignored French Baroque opera! The Buffalo-born, Harvard and Yale-educated music scholar founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979. Named after the 17th-century opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier—who, at that point, was known mostly as the composer who gave the Eurovision Song Contest its theme music—Les Arts Florissants was formed as a period instrument ensemble dedicated to Baroque music. Ten years later, Christie brought his ensemble and the now-legendary production of Atys to BAM, starting a 30-year romance of Baroque operas, many of them seldom heard or seen, a significant component of BAM’s artistic legacy.

With Rameau, maître à danser (Mar 1—3), Les Arts Florissants presents a double bill of two rarely seen opera-ballets by Jean-Philippe Rameau, continuing the artistic collaboration. Here are some other highlights.

Atys—May 1989
The period instrument movement was well established by the time Les Arts Florissants made its BAM debut in 1989. But the core repertoire of that revival was of Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart. Christie chose a different path: French Baroque opera. Although Lully and Rameau were the founding pillars of French music, their operas were then seen as either stodgy or masqueraded paeans to the Bourbon family—not worthy of modern taste. Christie changed that. The much-anticipated US premiere of Atys didn’t simply live up to the hype; it was a revelation. The New York Times called this production “a passionate, deeply involving musical drama with ravishing music” and “a triumph for Mr. Christie, for the Brooklyn Academy, for French culture then and now and for Lully’s reputation.” It was restaged in 2011 in celebration of BAM’s 150th anniversary. This clip, which shows the act III dream scene, is from that revival.

Médée—May 1994
Originally written for the Académie Royale de Musique, Charpentier’s Médée recasts the Medea myth in honor of King Louis XIV, who commissioned opera. The New York Times stated that Les Arts Florissants’ production “has arranged horror into neat little rows of melody and harmony, therefore rescuing us from it.” The late American mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson starred as Médée. Her Jason was the English tenor Mark Padmore. The two of them would reunite a few years later in Hippolyte et Aricie.

Lorraine Hunt Liberson as Médée (Photo by William Gibson/Martha Swope Associates)

Les Boréades—June 2003
Rameau’s final opera, Les Boréades, was in rehearsal when the composer died in 1764. Rehearsals were then canceled and the production was shelved for unknown reasons—though scholars have speculated that the cause was the desire to censure the subversive nature of Cahusac’s libretto, which was drawn from the turbulent mythical love affair between Boreas, God of the North Wind, and Orithya, daughter of the King of Athens. Les Boréades was not performed in its entirety until the 1980s. The production by Robert Carsen, with rain and flowers and singers on wire, is a theatrical feast worthy of Pina Bausch.

Photo by Jack Vartoogian
Hercules—February 2006
Some period music advocates, such as John Eliot Gardiner, have tried playing Romantic music on period instruments or, like Christopher Hogwood and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducting modern music orchestras. Christie has focused primarily on early and Baroque music. In addition to French composers Lully and Rameau, his renditions of British composers, such as Handel and Purcell, are equally celebrated. BAM’s 2006 Spring Season included Handel’s Hercules, featuring the superstar mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Hercules’ jealous wife, Dejanira, who is tricked into killing her husband. This clip of her discovery of that tragedy demonstrates DiDonato’s dramatic intensity and technical brilliance.

The Fairy Queen—March 2010
Part play, part song and dance, The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell glistens with theatrical magic as a Restoration-era take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Considered Purcell’s greatest work in this form, The Fairy Queen was thought to be lost following his death but was rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century. The irreverent, ribald production showed opera can be fun. Christie donned the bunny costume at his curtain call, earning laughter and applause from the sold-out Opera House audience. 

Photo by Stephanie Berger

The same season also included Dido and Aeneas, widely considered one of the greatest Baroque operas. The production featured a singer at the cusp of international renown, Sonya Yoncheva, who portrayed the inconsolable Carthage Queen.

Sonya Yoncheva as Dido and Andreas Wolf as Aeneas. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian)

Les Fêtes Vénitiennes—April 2016
In the period between Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau, André Campra was the toast of the Paris opera scene. His specialty was the hybrid opéra-ballet, which satisfied Parisians’ appetites for singing and extravagant dance in one evening. Les Fêtes Vénitiennes manifests the hedonist preoccupations of the French Regency period: comic invention, a pragmatic approach to the art of love, biting observations of social mores, and incisive criticism of the Parisian theater milieu. In this production by Robert Carsen, the onstage action is both a historical recreation and a winking modern commentary on that artificiality. Les Arts Florissants provided its trademark sparkling sound from the pit.

Rameau, maître à danser—March 1—3, 2019
Though created separately, the two opera-ballets on this program share commonalities. Both were composed by Rameau in his 70s, demonstrating his masterful command of the style. Both were intended for a more private and intimate presentation at the Fontainebleau, away from the glare of the Paris critics. And both are in the non-tragic genre of opera-ballet, with a pastoral setting.

Director Sophie Daneman, a Les Arts Florissants alumna who appeared in the 2011 revival of Atys, created a simple and unified staging by placing both orchestra and performers on stage, allowing for visible interactions by all. Daphnis et Églé (1753) tells the story of two shepherds whose love for one another was only revealed to them by Cupid. According to some musicologists, it alludes to the affair between Louis XIV and Madame de Pompadour. La Naissance d’Osiris (1754) is an allegorical celebration of the birth of the Duke of Berry, future Louis XVI. Outside the Temple of Jupiter in Egyptian Thebes, shepherds and townspeople gather in anticipation of a happy event, the birth of the god Osiris.

Learn more about Les Arts Florissants at BAM here

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


  1. Some episodes demonstrate dramatic intensity and technical brilliance which is appreciated by our team! They are qualified actors!

  2. Amazing performance and it look like a romance on the stage. Thanks

  3. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It's always useful to read through articles from other authors and practice something from other sites.
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