Based on a tale from Ovid, Quinault’s libretto for Atys (1676) was the first collaboration with Lully to eschew comic subplots, and its coherent serious tone and unremittingly tragic final act arguably place it close to Racinian drama. The jealous goddess Cybèle summons the Fury Alecto to drive Atys mad, but under the influence of this curse he murders his beloved river nymph Sangaride; upon being restored to sanity, he commits suicide, whereupon the remorseful Cybèle transforms his corpse into a living pine tree that he can be immortalised.
Probably Lully’s most-performed opera during his lifetime, in modern times Atys owes the revival of its fortunes to William Christie’s 1987 recording (Harmonia Mundi). This featured the woodwind player Hugo Reyne, who was inspired by these experiences to establish his own ensemble, La Simphonie du Marais. Their adroitly characterised playing is excellent in the lean overture and gentle gavotte for the followers of Flora during the panegyric prologue; the well-drilled chorus is also superbly effective. Sangaride’s short lament that she secretly loves Atys (‘Atys est trop heureux!’) is performed exquisitely by Bénédicte Tauran; she leads the bittersweet Act 4 trio ‘Qu’une premiere amour est belle’ exquisitely. Romain Champion’s Atys is slightly brawnier than Christie’s delicate Guy de Mey but he also sings with charming softness: the famous sleep divertissement at the heart of Act 3 is perhaps the loveliest stretch of music in all of Lully’s operas, and this spellbinding performance also features Vincent Lièvre-Picard’s sweet high tenor Morphée and the consoling bass voices of Matthieu Heim’s Phobétor and Aimery Lefèvre’s Phantase. The vivid contrast of the baleful dreams is played with just the right mixture of vigorous refinement. Amaya Dominguez vividly conveys Cybèle’s unease (‘Espoir sicher, et si doux’), imperious cruelty (in brief but potent recitatives), and mournfully leads the weeping nymphs and Corybantes in the opera’s conclusion. There is no English translation of the libretto but Reyne’s conversational essay, a helpful synopsis and lots of illustrations provide plenty of support.