It would be hard to calculate precisely the impact William Christie has had on the global opera scene since he founded Les Arts Florissants in the 1970's, so let's just call it wicked. In 1989, when he brought the original run of Atys to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, baroque opera in these parts was considered a curiosity, not a right. Yes, they had done Rinaldo at the Met for Marilyn Horne, and Samson for Jon Vickers. Yes, prior to that there were the occasional trips in the Wayback Machine for sundry singers of note (Joan Sutherland, et al.). But these were few and far between, recordings hard to find if they existed at all, and if you wanted historically informed performances, mostly you were looking at an H. Rider Haggard-style expedition into Darkest Academia. Atys put baroque opera on the map in a place where, for most opera-goers, that territory had long been designated
Our hero returns intact, but to a much altered landscape. Key about this production is the dead-seriousness in the approach to the material, and the focus on the details of period style. Les Arts Florissants have since been party to a certain amount of regie-ish messing about (Robert Carsen's Les Boreades, for instance), but being the leading edge, the Atys production was and is innocent of meta. In fact every opera-lover who finds any whiff of Konzept loathesome should be beating a path to BAM's gate for this, because this is about as untouched as it gets without turning the whole enterprise into a well-embalmed museum piece and/or festival of theatrical health and safety code violations.
So yes, it's a study. And as such it is riveting. And you can see why, in an 80's NY opera landscape -- remember when nobody knew there was a big window in Grand Central Station because it was obscured by an enormous panoramic shot of the Met Turandot? -- so rare a creature as Atys would make a splash. It was opera, Jim, but not as we knew it. This tiny little orchestra with...what are those things? And the static-ness. And the gestural language. The emphasis on blocking, on physical arrangement, on the moment-to-moment stage picture. Not to mention those frequent intervals of leaping about. Perhaps it's a commentary on how quickly baroque opera in the last thirty years has been absorbed into prevailing operatic theatrical trends that on Sunday we were still talking about those things as exotic. But it is also an indicator of how much closer to the mainstream it has all become that the majority of the seven-member Thirdfloorian delegation could tell an archlute from a theorbo.
Like baroque opera, cartographic white-space was also what Brooklyn was for me back in 1989, which is why I never made it down there for the original run, nor for the 1992 revisitation (I was living farther away by then). So a chorus of huzzahs for all those responsible for hauling out the production and putting it back on the road, and particularly to that nice Mr Stanton, who ponied up the cash to make it happen. (On this day of the Granting of Genius Grants, we celebrate people who know what to do with money.) Bravi, everybody. It was worth the wait for a justly legendary production we never dreamed would come our way again.
Okay, now read the professionals: NYT, Post, Parterre, Superconductor, Opera Obsession, Likely Impossibilities reviews.
And next for something...well, not really all that different, actually: