Sunday, October 09, 2011

Esprit de corps

Atys - Les Arts Florissants, 9/20/2011
Lyon, Reinhold, de Negri / Christie

William Christie and his company, seen at Lincoln Center in a Rameau double-bill in March, brought their forces -- including two of the leads from March -- to Brooklyn to kick off the BAM fall season last month. The piece? Not amusements by Rameau but a single four-hour work from the decade before Rameau's birth: Lully's rather more grand and weighty Atys.

Atys is, in a sense, a rebuttal to my complaint about the French baroque last time: by no means merely elegant, the opera tells of a dutiful and upright man driven by love to a fatal conflict with king and god. Its story -- at least in this most general sense -- isn't so far from Norma's or Don Carlo(s)'s or any number of other classic operatic tragedies'. But the telling is essentially different, for the court origin of the show permeates form as well as content.

It's the form that's most striking. Atys may be a tragic character, but his tale is only incidentally experienced as one: his figure and fate do not loom large before us as events progress to their awful end. Instead, charged personal scenes ever dissolve into the true musical and rhythmic life of the piece -- its orchestral and choral ensembles and dances, and the glorious central dream ensemble. Its strongest moments are presented as they're meant to be experienced: collectively, as part of the grand court orbiting Louis XIV. The pleasures (refined, covert, stately, raucous, fleeting), sorrows (melancholy, sublimated), terrors (covert -- of course), and not least pride of the courtier existence are given wondrous voice, but the show ever returns faithfully to the limits this perspective sets. The characters themselves do not -- their course runs the full tragic course -- but they don't set the opera's tone; their suffering is, until the end, furtive and their expressions transient. Only the goddess gets to air her unhappiness without such interruption, at the memorable Act III curtain.

As before, the contrast with Tchaikovsky is instructive. Petipa's French-Russian story-ballets -- most famously set to Tchaikovsky's music -- are basically the last survivor of court art in the West. The court roots are evident even in the cut and watered-down renditions we often see here: in the grand, colorful, and sometimes suffocating pageantry of the civilized acts; in the use of the observing king/queen/dignitary to frame character dance sequences therein; and even in the elaborate hierarchies within the companies that perform these shows. But it's the Romantic parts that make these shows, the white dream acts in which hierarchical civilization itself dissolves and the leads stand before us -- and each other -- in all their personal subjectivity. These spaces are what's missing from Atys, and so for a modern viewer watching Lully's opera is disconcertingly like watching Swan Lake (well, OK, La Bayadere) minus the lake. The leads are ever enmeshed in their context, never freely a deux.

(As an aside, the romantic in romantic ballet also strongly colors that form's pre-romantic court spaces as well: the enactment/doubling of the court theater relationship on stage wouldn't be necessary if that arrangement itself weren't in doubt after the romantic rediscovery of self; and in fact one might see the basic ballet metaplot as the European romantic's discontent with the great alliance he made with the mannered world for a century -- or more, we see its anachronistic affinity to this day -- after this initial explosive discovery... but that's going far from the subject.)

Of course Lully's protagonists get neither full-throated arias nor elaborately virtuosic solo dances to aid their individuation, but the era's general limitation on form isn't coincidence -- it accords perfectly well with the aims of this piece. So too do the details of the story -- its content. Lully's opera tells, in its most basic outline, of the classic court danger: a well-placed courtier falls (fatally) from his rank when his desire conflicts with his lord's. But the details are arranged by librettist Philippe Quinault to make the moral not so stark, the fear not so salient. The ruler's powers are here divided between two characters -- the wronged king Celenus, betrothed to Atys' beloved, and the goddess Cybele, jealously but unrequitedly in love with Atys -- and the more visibly representative earthly lord is assigned only the social and personal part. The ultimate power of the ruler, over the life and death of his subjects, whether for good reason or not, is here -- more palatably for all concerned -- only in the hands of the imaginary goddess (that is to say not, as in real life, in the hands of the same king). That this allocation allows the dream interlude and story to air another classic court danger -- the vengeance of a spurned lover -- is doubly fortunate. Furthermore, there's the turn later of Atys ultimately falling victim to yet another court pitfall, the abuse of ministerial power... These rearrangements and misdirections do more than the prologue's effusive direct praise to make the show Sun King friendly.

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It's not, of course, only to imperial Russian taste to look back fondly at the particular joys and sorrows of the French court eras. Not only modern France -- where Christie's company is based and well appreciated -- but modern New York (as one can hear from Christie's reception every year) has a cadre of connoisseurs whose aesthetic inclinations run in this direction, not least Ronald P. Stanton who seems to have funded this revival of Jean-Marie Vill├ęgier's 1987 wonderfully and appropriately elaborated production himself. The difference, of course, is that New York has no permanent companies to elaborate these ideals. It's no surprise, I think, that a city built on commerce and finance has more of a taste for upheaval and violent individual expressions than for works deliberately excluding (or limiting) those elements, but this Atys -- like many shows built for a particular minority taste -- is a great one-off.

Christie's counterbalance -- and that of "early music" productions more generally -- to the old and somewhat alien social landscape of the court is ever to recreate it on fresh new talent. Atys presents, of course, many familiar Les Arts Florissants veterans, but its prime female lead -- the goddess Cybele herself -- is given to a mezzo with the company's young artists' program, Anna Reinhold. She acquits herself excellently, and though the particularly vocal demands of the piece aren't great, her Cybele comes closest to having the sort of individual tragic presence with which one traditionally associates opera.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.