Lully’s Atys was, apparently, Louis XIV’s favourite opera. It’s not hard to see why. Within the rigid conventions of its time and place it really is rather fine. The plot is classical and convoluted. After an allegorical prologue celebrating Louis’ successful winter campaign in the Low Countries we get the story proper. The hero Atys loves the nymph Sangaride, daughter of the god of the river Sangar, who returns his affection She is betrothed to Celenus, king of the Phrygians. The goddess Cybèle fancies Atys and makes him her high priest. Atys uses his position to nix the wedding which upsets both Cybèle and Celenus. Cybèle blinds Atys who kills himself but is immortalised by being turned into a tree by Cybèle. All of this takes over three hours with lots of ballets and other set pieces. The music is French 17th century court music so it’s a bit unvaried but much of it is very fine indeed.
The production that was recorded at the Opéra Comique in 2011 is a collaboration between William Christie and Jean-Marie Villégier; scholars and gentlemen both. It doesn’t stray far from the conventions of HIP performances of the French Baroque but it doesn’t go campy on us either. No half naked baritones flash their impressive pecs. The musicianship is first class. Christie has his own Les Arts Florissants in the pit and the oloists read like a roll call of French Baroque specialists. The principal trio of Bernard Richter in the title role, Emmanuelle de Negri, as Sangaride, and Stéphanie d’Oustrac, as Cybèle, are all exemplary. The staging is lovely to look at and the dancing by the Compagnie Fêtes galantes is the best baroque style dancing I’ve seen, rivalled in recordings of such repertoire only by the very different La La La Human Steps on the Carsen Les Boréades.
Video direction is by François Roussillon and it’s superb. He really does justice to what is being presented on stage. He’s helped by very good DTS sound and a high quality DVD picture. (This recording is also available on Blu-ray). I can’t comment on the documentation because it was missing from my library copy. What my copy did have are the five bonus features comprising 100 minutes of material in addition to the opera itself. There’s material on the work itself and this production and a talk on stage machinery of the period. best of all is a feature on the cultural politics of Louis XIV by Maryvonnne de Saint Pulgent. It’s well worth a look.