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Mortals, Beware: Lully's 'Atys'

Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Cybèle in Lully's 'Atys' at the Opera Comique, Paris.
Pierre Grosbois
Opera Comique, Paris
Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Cybèle in Lully's 'Atys' at the Opera Comique, Paris.

Though it may not be obvious, the 1999 Hollywood hit Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, addresses a dramatic theme that's been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years — and which also drives this week's opera, a 17th-century tragedy by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

In the movie, Grant's character, a sort of British everyman named William, falls in love with a superstar movie actress named Anna, played by Roberts. The affair goes swimmingly at first, but their two worlds inevitably collide and she dumps him. Eventually, it all works out, but not without a whole lot of heartache in the meantime.

In a key scene, during a well-lubricated, late-night bull session, William looks to one of his buddies for consolation. "Let's face it," says the friend. "Anna's a goddess. You know what happens when mortals get involved with the gods." "Buggered, is it?" says William. "Every time," replies the friend. And the title character in Lully's Atys might well have used that same advice.

The opera was composed in 1676, and it's in a genre that Lully largely invented, called tragédie en musique — tragedy in music. The style dominated opera in France for much of the century. Yet ironically, Lully himself wasn't French.

He was born in Italy in 1632 as Giovanni Battista Lulli. He moved to France at age 13 to teach Italian to a teenaged cousin of the French king, Louis XIV, whose patronage was also a driving force in the development of early French opera. The composer eventually became a French citizen, changing his name in the process.

In Atys, the title character is a young man in Phrygia who seems to be living a charmed life. He's best friends with the king, he's in love with a beautiful woman and he's about to be given a powerful new job. Then he catches the eye of Cybèle, a romantically inclined goddess who won't take "no" for an answer.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production from the Opéra Comique in Paris, featuring one of the world's finest Baroque ensembles, Les Arts Florissants, with conductor William Christie. The stars are tenor Bernard Richter as Atys, soprano Emmanuelle de Negri as Sangaride, the woman he loves, and mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d'Oustrac as the dangerously petulant Cybèle. The opera, which was co-produced by Opéra Comique, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Théâtre de Caen, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Arts Florissants, will be staged in Brooklyn at BAM later this month.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.