Agnew, Paul


AtysJean-Baptiste Lully - Atys

Opéra Comique, Paris, 2011 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Jean-Marie Villégier, Bernard Richter, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Emmanuelle di Negri, Nicholas Rivenq, Marc Mouillon, Sophie Daneman, Jaël Azzaretti, Paul Agnew, Cyril Auvity, Bernard Delatré | FRA Musica

In contrast to most of William Christie’s recent productions reviving forgotten gems of early French Baroque opera, this 2011 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys for the Opéra Comique in Paris is rather more faithful to the period and tradition of the original work. It may be the case that the works of Lully’s successor Rameau are better suited to a more experimental approach that strives to find a balance between the classicism of the subjects and the modern perspective from which they must inevitably be viewed, but the Les Arts Florissantes’ production of Lully’s Armide directed by Robert Carsen shows that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. As a revival of one of Christie’s earliest productions, from 1987, what is fascinating about Jean-Marie Villégier’s production (amply documented in the extra features on this Blu-ray disc), is the careful consideration of how to present works that hadn’t been played anywhere for several hundred years in as faithful a way as possible while still making them relevant and meaningful to a new audience. The fact that a wealthy benefactor was so moved by the original production that he paid for the lavish production to be restaged in 2011 is testament to the fact that the producers got something right, and the reason why a greater audience can share in the enjoyment and beauty of this work in the age of High Definition video.

Inevitably, at this early stage in the revival and presentation of such works, the tendency is to aim towards fidelity to the period and the intentions of the work as closely as possible, but not slavishly so. There are good reasons for this, principally the fact that, even with great amounts of research on the part of Villégier - an expert on the theatre of this period - one can only come up with at best an approximation of how it was originally staged based on the scarce accounts and documentation of the opera’s original performances for the Royal Court of Louis XIV. Secondly, one has to take into consideration the expectations of a modern opera audience to some degree, since Atys itself was written and tailored to the expectations of a contemporary audience, and there’s a huge gulf of history and opera now that lies in-between that cannot be ignored. Any attempt to create authentic props, backdrops and stage effects would consequently only be a representation of a dull and dusty museum piece, making it nothing more than a curiosity of how opera would have looked in Baroque times, but Christie and his collaborators evidently believe that Lully’s Atys (like their revivals of other works from this period) has inherent musical and entertainment value that doesn’t need to be tied to a historical tradition.

Atys

Villégier’s production manages very well in this respect, aiming for period authenticity in the set and costume designs, capturing a sense of the elaborate extravagance of the work - in musical as well as in production terms - without going overboard and cluttering the stage with unnecessary props and effects. The costumes are actually those of 17th century nobility, not the robes and tunics of classical antiquity in a pastoral setting that would have been more likely employed for this subject, so the intention is clearly to give a semblance of the opera in its time rather than how it would actually have been staged. In the same vein, there is just one all-purpose grand palatial room used for all three acts, based on an historical etching, which gives sufficient room for the large cast of singers, dancers and chorus to play out the comedy, drama and tragedy of the work, conveying everything that is required through the quality of the musical and vocal presentation. The splendour and the sense of the work is thus preserved, without the need for programme footnotes to explain the tradition or make excuses for peculiarities of the production design.

The prelude in praise of the Sun King Louis XIV in this particular opera is an interesting one then, since it serves to set out the whole tone of the opera and the approach taken towards it. In the prelude, Time and the Seasons are put on hold while Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, begs leave of the king himself to delay the arrival of Spring so that the tale can be told of the tragic loves of Atys and the goddess Cybèle. It’s a very formal proposal, though it’s enlivened by comic touches, and this production accordingly plays out in the same fashion - respectfully, but with a lightness of touch. The theme, as is often the case in Baroque opera, is a romantic and a tragic one - of lovers who are kept apart by the whims of gods and kings. And, as is also often the case, gods and kings are not immune either from the forces of love. Here, Atys has just discovered that his secret love for Sangaride is reciprocal, but, alas, the discovery comes too late, for Sangaride is about to be married to the King of the Phrygians, Celenus. The lovers appeal to the goddess Cybèle, who has just appointed Atys her high priest, not knowing that Cybèle is in love with Atys herself. The results in such works when the lovers are not united with their true partners, are inevitably tragic.

While that sounds like a typically Metastasian kind of situation for a long-winded opera seria, but while Atys does indeed run to some three and a quarter hours with lots of tragic bemoaning of the cruel twists of fate and the unfathomable will of the gods, it is not a typical opera in this respect. There are no long repetitive da capo arias and no extravagant coloratura, practically no recitativo secco either, rather Atys almost holds to the model that Gluck would aspire to in his opera reforms. There is little that really stands out as an aria, but rather, a wonderful continuous flow to the singing which purposefully carries the drama and the inner feelings of the characters forward in an admirably concise and direct fashion. There are no longeurs, despite the length, the opera having a wonderful rhythm and structure of its own, the ariosos varying in pace and being broken up with ballets and the most beautiful choral arrangements. Even little divertissements, such as the prelude and the quite stunning Sleep quartet of Act III (”Dormons, dormons tous“) have a dramatic purpose, Le Sommeil arriving to transport Atys to the realm of Cybèle. All of this serves to make Atys dramatically engaging at the same time as being spellbindingly entertaining.

Atys

More than just serving these functions as should any good opera, one is equally struck and impressed by Lully’s musical sensibility, which is brought to life beautifully by William Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissantes. Despite there being some discussion of research into the instruments played and the composition of the orchestra in the accompanying documentary on disc two of this Blu-ray set, it’s not known how much reconstruction, interpretation and improvisation was involved on the part of Christie, but the results are genuinely impressive. It’s not just the interpretation and performance of the music that are successful however, but rather how every element of the production, direction and choreography falls into place with no jarring elements, creating a consistent and fluid dramatic and musical wholeness. It’s within that perfect setting that the performance of Stéphanie d’Oustrac stands out all the more vividly like a sparkling jewel. Her singing is beautiful, perhaps no more exceptional than the other fine performers in the principal roles, but in her acting, in the rush of emotions that flit across her face and rest in her eyes, she brings that much needed humanity that is essential to prevent the opera being just a dry museum curiosity and instead, as Villégier accurately describes it in the documentary feature, “a catharsis of passions” that is recognisable to any viewer of any age or period. It’s all the more impressive that it is a goddess who displays such passions and, likewise, that those all too recognisable human passions can be found in a work that is almost 350 years old.

It’s remarkable too how such an old work can look and sound so fresh on the impeccable High Definition presentation of the Blu-ray release from FRA Musica. The beautifully lit image captures all the beauty in the detail of the costumes and the production design, the direction for television by Francois Roussillon capturing it all wonderfully as ever, allowing the camera to linger on the expressions of the singers at crucial moments. Nothing is missed. The usual PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are provided and have a similar crystal clarity with fineness of detail. The surround mix in particular on this release makes great use of the additional spacing and separation of instruments. A two-disc set, disc one contains the entire opera, with disc two given over to an interesting 100-minute documentary reuniting most of the creators involved in the original 1987 production recreated here in 2011. Subtitles are in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. A very impressive set of a production (like Christie’s stunning Les Indes Galantes) that deserves to be retained for posterity.

ArmideJean-Baptiste Lully - Armide

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2008 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Robert Carsen, Stephanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callahan, Andrew Torise, Anders J. Dahlin | FRA Musica

It’s difficult to know what balance to strike when putting on a production of a Baroque opera since, in many cases, the works in question are incredibly old and so rarely performed that they are indeed often being introduced for the first time in centuries to a new modern audience. You can’t go too far wrong with a straightforward staging using traditional painted backdrops and period costumes (which I’ve seen on DVD, for example, in productions of Cavalli’s La Calisto, Rameau’s Zoroastre or Landi’s Il Sant’ Alesio). While they would certainly cater to a specialist audience, it’s hard to imagine those kinds of productions reaching a larger audience or even being revived too often. I find however that William Christie, with whatever director he is working with, strikes a much better balance between fidelity to the spirit of the original Baroque opera – using period instruments of course – and making use of modern theatrical techniques that don’t so much revise the work as put it into a context that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. That’s certainly the case when working with the opera director Robert Carsen (Les Boréades), who also manages – whatever period of opera composition he is working in – to align the opera to a unique and workable concept that gets to the essence of the piece and its themes, while also managing to be a remarkable spectacle.

The bridging of the gap between the past and the present is taken quite literally in this 2008 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686), the prologue traditionally added to French opera of this time to praise and glorify King Louis XIV set out as if it were a tourist excursion to Versailles, where guides describe the history of the subject. Carsen, with film director François Roussillon, even go as far as filming the entire prologue sequence on location at Versailles, with ballet sequences much like the ones traditionally seen in the intervals of the televised New Year’s Day Concerts from Vienna. It’s a device that certainly uses modern technology to extend the scope of the theatre stage and the historical context – which simply has to be taken into account in any modern representation – setting the scene and location more effectively than any painted backdrop will do. And such techniques help bring the work more to life and set it into context for a modern audience, without altering the intent of the original, then why not?

There on the bed of the King of France then, Paul Agnew falls asleep and, like in a dream, goes back to a stylised past where the story of Armide unfolds. Thereafter, there is less cleverness and a more straightforward operatic staging, but like Carsen and Christie’s work on Rameau’s Les Boréades, it’s a highly stylised, fictional period setting, with elegant courtly uniformity of design and colour schemes to suggest location and mood. It’s utterly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, making striking use of light and colour, but working also in coordination with the tone, mood and rhythm of the music score. Christie, an American, is a recognised national treasure in France for the work he has done breathing life into the dusty, stuffy academicism of old-fashioned French Baroque opera, works his usual wonders here with Lully. Although it follows the usual conventions of the five-act Baroque opera form, with recitative, aria and ballet sequences, there’s a wonderful flow to the piece, which doesn’t have the usual stop/start rhythms, but a musical coherence and gentleness that is closer to Monteverdi than the later heavier dance rhythms of Rameau.

The content of the opera itself – a mythological story of a noble knight who resists the lure of bewitchment from a dangerous siren (Ulysees, Parsifal) – is nothing special and not particularly dramatic, but it’s given a remarkably beautiful and sensitive treatment by Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault in their consideration of the characters and the emotional journey they undergo. The followers of the sorceress Armide are celebrating her latest victory over her rivals, but she herself is not happy, as she has failed to seduce the knight Renaud, who has remained immune to her charms. Over the course of the five acts, Armide eventually succeeds in her enchantment of Renaud, but falls in love with him – even the all-powerful are subject to sentiments that may render them powerless – and this causes her great emotional distress, torn between hatred and love, between glory and wisdom. These are of course personified in characters (Laurent Naouri is a red dress-wearing Hatred), but the production also attempts to implicate the actual audience themselves into the staging, which is a little gimmicky, but effective nonetheless in achieving its intentions.

As tastefully and as pitch-perfectly as Carsen, Christie and Les Arts Florissants present the work, in complete accord with each other and within the themes, tone and tenor of the original work, the singing brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Lully’s opera work. Stephanie d’Oustrac takes Armide through a deeply emotional journey that culminates in her famous aria at the end of Act III (“Enfin, il est en ma puissance”), but she also harmonises beautifully with Paul Agnew’s wonderful Renaud in their Act V duet (“Armide, vous m’aller quitter”). Anders J. Dahlin also has the lovely aria of the fortunate lover in Act V, who advises all to take advantage of the fleeting years of youth and happiness before they are gone forever (again reminiscent of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). It may seem like little more than a ‘divertissement’, glorifying noble sentiments that have the power to enchant (banishing Hatred and inspiring Love), but the proof of these powers is in the enchantment of Lully’s music itself.

There are no complaints with the presentation of the opera on Blu-ray. The image is clear throughout, conveying the stunning colour schemes perfectly, with bold reds standing out against the subdued uniformity of the silver/grey and gold tones. The soundtrack in the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes gives a wonderful, warm stage to the music and the singing. There’s a fine half-hour extra feature ‘Armide at Versailles’, which has Christie and Carson talking about their approach to the production, but also has a superbly informative contribution from Benôit Dratwicki on the fascinating history of the piece, its relevance to its time and its place in the tradition of the French tragédie-lyrique.

BoreadesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2003 | Robert Carsen, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, La La La Human Steps, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Rivenq, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Jaël Azzaretti | Opus Arte

It’s hard to imagine how Rameau’s last opera would have been staged 250 years ago – particularly since, written a year before the composer’s death in 1765, it was abandoned unperformed and has since disappeared into near-obscurity – but Robert Carsen’s typically brilliant direction finds an appropriate perfect balance between simplicity and modernity that allows the music, singing and the dancing to be seen in the best possible light.

The emphasis, as ever with Carsen, is on the lighting and colour to achieve the appropriate mood and atmosphere, but every other element works perfectly alongside it. The costumes are smart and elegant, a classic formal 1940s Dior look, which you might not think of as being the dress of ancient mythology, but the opera itself uses familiar figures and creates its own mythology from them, much like Rameau’s Zoroastre. The sets are minimal, but props, when they are used, are used to impressive effect, the director finding a perfect balance between the colours and the tones of the dress, never letting the stage become cluttered even when it is filled with singers, chorus and dancers.

There’s a sense of harmony in the stage arrangement then that is appropriate for the subject of the opera that is bound up in nature and the seasons. Alphisa, the Queen of the mythical land of Bactria (the same fictional kingdom used in Zoroastre), is bound by law to marry one of the sons of Boreas, the God of the North wind, but she is in love with Abaris, a man of unknown descent. It turns out of course that he is the son of Apollo and one of Boreas’ nymphs, making him of Borean descent and capable of marrying Alphisa, but there is a lot of turmoil and tempestuous exchanges before this little fact is dramatically revealed. That conflict is expressed in the seasons in the most colourfully theatrical manner with an immaculate sense of the musical, dramatic and aesthetic principles of the opera.

It’s a French Baroque opera, of course, so there are also ballet elements, and the intricate modern movements and gestures of the La La La Human Steps fit perfectly into the overall spectacle. And a wonderful spectacle is what it is intended to be. Regardless of the intricacies or the meaninglessness of the plot, with its Masonic overtones and pre-Revolutionary class conflict, Les Boréades is a supreme diversion and an entertainment, combining all the elements that make up Baroque opera and where the noble expressions of love, honour and liberty are restored and win out over the twists of fate and whims of the gods.

We are fortunate to be able to have someone like William Christie to bring this kind of opera back to the stage, who, along with Robert Carsen, has such a deep understanding and love for the Rameau and his works. The performance of Les Arts Florissantes under Christie’s direction is marvellous, attacking the rhythmic dance score with verve, but also with a degree of sensitivity for the sentiments of love expressed in the arias. The same can be said of the terrific cast – particularly in Barbara Bonney’s strong and impressive Queen Alphisa, and Paul Agnew’s gorgeously lyrical high-tenor Abaris (listen out for his heartbreaking aria ‘Je cours fléchir un dieu sévère’ in Act IV) .

Filmed in HD, if only available on Standard Definition DVD, the recording of performance still looks and sounds extremely good, the sound mixes in LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 (there is no DTS track here). The opera is spread over two discs but, since the five acts of the opera are played straight through without even any natural breaks between the acts, the split is unfortunate but unavoidable. There is also an hour-long documentary on the opera, which is relatively informative but over-long. A fine package.

IndesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2004 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Danielle de Niese, João Fernandes, Valérie Gabail, Nicolas Cavallier, Anna Maria Panzarella, Paul Agnew, Nathan Berg, Jaël Azzaretti, François Piolino, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Le Roi, Malin Hartelius, Nicholas Rivenq, Christoph Strehl, Christophe Fel, Patricia Petibon  | Opus Arte

This splendid piece of Baroque musical theatre, one of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s earliest works from 1735, is quite different in form from what you would normally associate with familiar opera tradition. Instead of conforming to a typical classical or mythological storyline of early opera, with long arias and recitative, it operates instead within a structure of four separate but thematically linked “entrées” (with a prologue), colourful little tableaux vivants of love adventures in the exotic foreign lands of the “Amorous Indies” – Turkey, Peru, Persia and America.

The nature of those romantic adventures will certainly be the familiar opera tropes of classical figures and archetypes, with stories of love and forbidden passion enlivened by mistaken identities, cross-dressing and extraordinary coincidences. In addition however to the beautiful arias, duets and choral arrangements, once the little romantic complications are resolved, they are celebrated by grand choral arrangements and joyous ballet sections, all of it imaginatively and simply spectacularly staged like some big colourful cartoon.

The question of fidelity to the period doesn’t really come into it and is much less important than the spirit within which it is enacted. The staging certainly makes use of modern techniques, but is timeless and utterly faithful to the nature and intent of the pieces, which is simply to entertain and take pleasure in the beauty of the music, the singing and the playing of the characters. With William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the helm for this remarkable production at the Paris Opéra in 2004, and an exceptional cast, Les Indes Galantes certainly does that. It’s an absolute marvel, a delightful entertainment on so many levels, inventive and visually dazzling, filled with wonderful rhythmic music that will take your breath away. Really, the rediscovery of this wonderful piece and the efforts put into its revival can’t be praised highly enough.

Released on a 2-DVD set by Opus Arte, the quality of the set is of an extremely high standard. Upscaled to 1080p, it often looks as good as a high-definition presentation – with only the colour saturation being slightly less defined. PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 tracks are strong. A 51 minute documentary on the production with contributions from William Christie is well worth viewing.