by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2011
The late-nineteenth-century Encyclopædic Dictionary defined a “repertoire” as “the list of operas, dramas, &c., which can be readily performed by an operatic or dramatic company, from their familiarity with them.” In other words, a repertory is that which doesn’t require a great deal of extra work. Given how much effort is needed to learn an operatic role, the resistance to undertaking new pieces, or reviving neglected ones, is understandable. But no one should mistake the consensus repertory for a roll call of the most significant operas ever written. An accumulation of comfort and habit on the part of performers and audiences alike, it gives a fragmentary picture of the past. Fortunately, you can always find a few high-minded guerrillas doing battle with the received wisdom.
The conductor and harpsichordist William Christie has done as much creative damage to the repertory as anyone. In 1986, in Prato, Italy, he and his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, performed Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera “Atys,” which had played to the immense satisfaction of Louis XIV in 1676, was often revived in the following decades, and then, with the rest of Baroque opera, had dropped from sight. As Andrew Porter wrote in this magazine, the Christie production “was the first endeavor in over two hundred years to present a Lully opera with resources approaching those the composer commanded.” It arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989, elating large crowds, and returned in 1992. Recently, the agrochemical magnate Ronald Stanton, who had been smitten with Christie’s “Atys,” funded a revival. So the show had one more turn at BAM, in September, confirming its reputation as a semi-miraculous feat of resurrection.
Lully, a natural autocrat with a weakness for page boys, came to Paris from Florence, finding his fortune after he was hired as a tutor for a cousin of the young Louis XIV. He danced alongside the monarch in ballets and began to contribute music to royal entertainments. Following a series of collaborations with Molière, Lully achieved near-absolute power in 1672, when the king granted him a monopoly on large-scale opera productions. Lully established a genre known as tragédie en musique the operatic equivalent of the French classical drama of Racine and Corneille. He imposed Italianate fluidity on French declamation, though he took care to immerse himself in the rhythms of his adopted language, committing each libretto to memory and then reciting it until the music came to him. At the same time, he maximized opportunities for spectacle, filling the stage with gods, heroes, monsters, and disasters.
“Atys” is a tale of true hearts stymied. Sangaride, daughter of the river god, is in love with the beautiful youth Atys, but she has been promised to King Célénus, while Atys is desired by the earth goddess Cybèle. In a harsh dénouement, Cybèle clouds Atys’s mind so that he takes Sangaride to be a monster and slays her. When he realizes what he has done, he slays himself. (Self-castration is not specified, as it is in the Greek story of Attis, which later became one of the chief cults of the Roman Empire.) The libretto, by Philippe Quinault, traces the conflicting attachments of the principals with mathematical elegance. The theme of the night is articulated when Atys sings, “How cruel a torment / To avow that a Rival is worthy of being happy!” The torment is ultimately Cybèle’s, as she gazes upon the carnage that her passion for Atys has caused.
In contrast to so much later operatic writing, Lully’s vocal lines seldom call attention to themselves. They have a conversational ease, and at moments of high emotion they intensify into a pure, spare lyricism, often with reference to older Italian models. When, in Act I, Sangaride expresses her abiding sorrow—she believes at first that Atys is indifferent to her, “sovereign of his heart”—she sings over a four-note descending bass line recalling Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa.” The most astonishing music appears in Act III, when Atys is visited by the gods of sleep and dreams, who advance Cybèle’s agenda in his subconscious. Lully sets up a steady, slow quarter-note pattern in the recorders and strings and sustains it at hypnotic length. Although the opera opens with a panegyric to royal authority, it hints at an underworld of secret loves and dangerous passions, to which even the mightiest are subject.
The 1986 production of “Atys,” with direction by Jean-Marie Villégier and sets by Carlo Tommasi, seems to have shed none of its complex allure. The jokey staging of the prologue threatens a prolonged campfest, with bewigged singers tottering about, aristocratic dancers fuming at the antics of harlequins, and an actor mimicking the imperious Lully. (When he beats his conducting stick on the floor, you are reminded that Lully famously died of gangrene after accidentally impaling his own foot.) Then a mysterious, dark-clad figure makes a sudden gesture and the backdrop vanishes, revealing a sombre marbled hall. The production keeps alternating between flamboyant and intimate scenes, zany pratfalls and solemn rituals; there is a strange kind of realism in its jarring contrasts, which suggest the irrational rhythms of life itself.
Christie, a Buffalo native who has long held sway over early music in France, maintains an uncanny closeness to the composer of “Atys.” (Richard Taruskin has observed, “Just like Lully himself, another favored immigrant, Christie has been officially charged with teaching the French to be French.”) As much a dancing master as a conductor, Christie drew out the essential bouncing pulse in each section while never letting go of the flowing line. The tenor Ed Lyon, as Atys, sounded less secure than he did in last year’s Arts Florissants residency at BAM, although he acted vigorously. Anna Reinhold, as Cybèle, and Emmanuelle de Negri, as Sangaride, sang with affecting force. And Paul Agnew and Cyril Auvity, in the high-tenor roles of the God of Sleep and Morpheus, impeccably enacted the central mission of Lully’s art—in the words of one contemporary, “to keep the mind, eyes, and ears in a constant state of enchantment.”
The beginning of the Sleep Scene from the Harmonia Mundi recording of Lully's Atys, with Gilles Ragon as Sommeil and William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants.
Gaetano Donizetti is another victim of the repertory of convenience. Although he has hardly lacked for performances at the Met, only one of his serious operas, “Lucia di Lammermoor,” has played regularly at the house. Last week, the Met gave a belated company première to Donizetti’s 1830 historical drama “Anna Bolena,” arguably his masterpiece. Like “Atys,” it tells of a hopeless clash between love and power: Henry VIII casts aside Anne Boleyn in favor of Jane Seymour. Donizetti lavished care on the score, giving orchestral variety to the recitatives and adding Beethoven-like harmonic jolts to the ensembles and choruses. As in Verdi’s mature dramas, there is a sense of tragic fate embodied in a political behemoth, and the climax is tremendous: Anne goes to her doom as the pageantry of Henry’s next wedding begins.
Alas, the new Met production is a misfire—the third consecutive below-par opening night for the Peter Gelb regime. The Scottish director David McVicar, who created a stylish, mildly provocative “Trovatore” for the Met three seasons ago, here retreats to bland pictorialism, with Dutch Master lighting directed at hulking sets. Resembling a half-finished Hollywood project, the staging prevents intimacy and hampers the singers’ projection.
Anna Netrebko took the title role. She is unquestionably a star, the kind that keeps companies afloat. Her voice has grown darker and plusher without losing its lustre. In the ensembles, the gleam of her top notes caused chills. But she lacks coloratura dexterity, and her solo turns were self-consciously poised, bordering on smug. In the final scene, I marvelled at the beauty of her voice without believing for a moment that she was a queen going mad.
On opening night, the only singer who showed real ferocity was the Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, finding a potent mixture of outer brilliance and inward fire. (When the fast-rising soprano Angela Meade takes over as Anne, on October 21st, Gubanova may have competition.) The young tenor Stephen Costello, as Anne’s former lover Percy, sang with honest grit but struggled in the upper register, his voice thinning to a near-squeak at the very top. Ildar Abdrazakov didn’t quite have the vocal weight for Henry VIII, yet his acting was superb, his eyes shooting daggers in all directions. Marco Armiliato, in the pit, had an uneven night, at times imposing crisp momentum and at others engaging in a tempo tug-of-war with his singers. In all, the evening had an untethered quality: no one seemed fully in charge.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first opening in many years without James Levine. Beset by medical problems, the maestro had already scaled back his schedule, and a few weeks ago he cancelled his fall appearances. Fabio Luisi has been named principal conductor, although Levine remains music director. The need to address the vacuum in artistic leadership is urgent. It is time for Levine to step aside, receiving due veneration for his legacy, and for Gelb and the Met board to decide on a long-term musical leader—and not one inclined to rubber-stamp dubious ideas. Otherwise, the Met will devolve into business as usual: familiar repertory in perpetual rotation.