LULLY: Atys (complete opera) – Soloists/ Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie, conductor – Harmonia mundi deluxe edition HML 5901257.59 (3 bound CDs), TT 170:39 *****:
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was Italian by birth but spent the bulk of his life in France as a composer in the court of the illustrious "Sun King" Louis XIV. He began his career as a composer by writing ballets and then music for several comedies by Moliere. With the decline in popularity of ballet at the court Lully pursued opera as a genre. Convinced that Italian-style opera was not conducive to the French language Lully merged aria and recitative into a single dramatic entity. He also tightened the means by which the story unfolded, thereby increasing the dramatic impact of his operas. These developments anticipated Wagner’s revolutionary music dramas by nearly two centuries.
Conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have made a specialty of recording rarely produced operas of the French Baroque. Atys was an early attempt by Christie and his forces at re-creating an authentic performance of these historically important works. Using the latest in contemporary scholarship as to French Baroque performance practice as well as informed guesswork and inspired intuition, Christie and his orchestra recorded Atys in January 1987 following acclaimed performances of the work at the Opera-Comique in Paris. The performances and the recording that followed were a revelation as an old genre – the tragedie en musique – was re-discovered. The viability of Baroque opera as an entertainment in the modern era was still in question and Atys was an early potent argument in favor of the genre. This Harmonia mundi release in an illustrated and extremely handsome deluxe edition CD-book is meant to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Les Arts Florissants.
The performances by these superb Baroque specialists are exemplary in every way. Instrumentalists play with stylish grace and an effortless transparency of texture, creating music that often achieves luminous perfection. Their stunning precision confers an apparent harmonic simplicity to Lully’s gentle contrapuntal lines, enabling the voices to shine. The vocal soloists take advantage of the sheer instrumental textures, weaving through Lully’s pristine score with an easy elegance to thrilling effect. As a result Lully’s music is always beautiful and stylish, never succumbing to either age or disuse. We wonder why such excellent music has remained hidden for so long even as we are grateful that the artistry to bring it to vibrant life has finally arrived.
Harmonia mundi’s engineers have produced a virtual stage that is sonically deep and crystal clear. Both instruments and voices are full and rich. There is a subtle reverberant bloom to the sound that provides a pleasing liquidity that showcases Lully’s music to best effect.
— Mike Birman