I’ve cracked the code for writing French Baroque opera! Take any scale, major or minor, sing it in a string of quarter/eighth triplets in triple time, ascending or descending. At the end of each four bar phrase, take a breath, begin on any other note at least a third away from the note you finished. For anger, move descending thirds and fifths in duples; for anguish, ascend by a sixth. Repeat for four hours.
Audience members at BAM this week could have done the same, after being immersed in Lully’s Atys in an opulent production by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. The run is a revival of a 1987 French production, which included costumes that could have come out of the Frick Collection Boucher Room, a set of mock-marble in painstaking detail, stunning displays of elegant Baroque dance, and a perfectly coiffed wig for each and every person on stage.
Typical opera goers probably could not help but be enthralled at this feast for the senses, even if the Fellini-like jumble of characters could at first only be distinguished by their wigs. The experience was like eating an elaborate French dessert – amid the drowning sweetness, one encounters a varying textures of meringue, custard, and cake, the bitterness of chocolate, the delicacy of cream, and the bite of liqueur.
That is to say, while this music is overwhelmingly sweet, it’s the contrasts of color and texture that make it enjoyable, and Christie is a master at delineating them. The story, derived from Ovid, is yet another expostulation on the timeless love triangle, or square in this case. A goddess is descends to earth because she loves Atys, who loves Sangaride, who is intended for a king, whose love for her is not returned.
This set up shouldn’t take too long to resolve – unhappily, I’m afraid – but this being Baroque music, we have some stops along the way. First is an argument among the allegories, whose real purpose is to flatter the patron of all these festivities, King Louis XIV. Along the way we have an extended sleep scene, with some gorgeous music for those gorgeous rarities of voices, the haute-contre (high tenors). Here’s a clip from the original production, note the onstage instruments:
When we weren’t enthralled in gorgeousness, the drama came from the recitatives, in which Sanagride and Atys confess their love and dread their destinies. Christie understands the importance of the contrasts, how to relate one moment to another by making the affect the complete opposite of the one before. For some of the more tender, hopeful moments, the instruments dropped out to let an intimate vocal trio or quartet give us a glimpse of their emotional lives, or raucous demons are embellished with finger cymbals and an unpitched drum.
Baroque dance is also something to behold, though it comes across as much less flashy than its modern descendant. But then you realize the work that goes into an effortless sweep of the hand or landing on one foot without a torso shudder. In the last scene, the goddess summons a songe funeste to wreak her evil revenge, a silent movement part played with cold-bloodied creepiness by Arnaud Richard. I’m guessing it was his character – not his performance – that drew boos at the curtain call.
My impression of French Baroque opera is that it’s not really about the plot or even the quality of the music. It’s about luxuriating in the excess of riches that we, as avatar Louis XIVs, can enjoy. I’m guessing at least part of the audience was there for that reason, more than for the exercise of sitzfleisch that this epic performance required. In the lobbies cramped with elders, a graceful sweep of the hand generally got them out of the way.