The Story Of 'Atys' Lully shows us what happens when mere mortals get involved with the gods.

The Story Of 'Atys'

Like many French operas of the time, Atys is an extravagant drama, and was intended both to entertain the king and to flatter him. It begins with a Prologue, in which a great hero — likely representing Louis XIV himself — is honored by the gods, and then presented with the story of Atys.

That story begins in ACT ONE as Atys, a Phrygian leader, urges his fellow citizens to prepare a welcome for Cybèle, a goddess who will soon be visiting. His friend Idas wonders whether Atys's high spirits are actually related to his love life, and not the impending arrival of their illustrious guest.

We also meet the beautiful nymph Sangaride. She's about to marry Célénus, the king of Phrygia. Sangaride pretends to be happy about that, but she's actually down in the dumps. She's in love with Atys, and thinks he's not interested. She finds out otherwise when the two finally get together and Atys tenderly confesses his passion for her. But the first act ends with a spectacular sequence celebrating the arrival of Cybèle, which doesn't bode well for the new lovers.

As ACT TWO begins, both Atys and Célénus are eager to be named Cybèle's high priest. But as we soon find out, the goddess has a romantic eye on Atys, so he gets the job and everyone celebrates his new appointment.

WHO'S WHO

Bernard Richter ................. Atys

Stéphanie d'Oustrac ........ Cybèle

Emmanuelle de Negri ... Sangaride

Nicolas Rivenq ............. Célénus

Marc Mauillon ................. Idas

Sophie Daneman ............ Doris

Jaël Azzaretti .............. Mélisse

Paul Agnew .................. Sleep

Cyril Auvity .............. Morpheus

Rachel Redmond .............. Iris

Elodie Fonnard .............. Flora

Callum Thorpe .......... Phobétor

Benjamin Alunni .... Phantasmus

Les Arts Florissants Chorus and Orchestra

William Christie, conductor

In ACT THREE, Cybèle puts Atys into a deep sleep, and the action depicts his dreams. Some of them are happy; he hears songs of love. But he also hears warnings about what might happen if he angers the gods. When Atys wakes up, he's disturbed by those warnings, and finds Cybèle at his bedside, more than eager to comfort him.

Later, Sangaride goes to Cybèle, hoping the goddess can prevent her marriage to Célénus. Atys joins in, also urging Cybèle to intervene — but discouraging Sangaride from revealing their relationship. The act ends with Cybèle's unhappy realization that Atys and Sangaride are in love.

As ACT FOUR begins, Sangaride has misinterpreted Atys's reluctance to admit their love in front of Cybèle, and assumes he's now in love with the goddess. He manages to reassure her, but then gets himself in even deeper trouble. Using his authority as high priest, he goes to Sangaride's father and orders him to put a stop to his daughter's marriage — a step that seals his fate.

At the start of ACT FIVE, Célénus has discovered Atys' meddling and complains to Cybèle. The goddess has finally had enough of all these human foibles, and decides to punish Atys. She puts a spell on him, causing him to go insane. In his madness, he mistakes Sangaride for a monster, and kills her. Cybèle then cures the insanity, and when Atys realizes what he's done, he tries to commit suicide. Cybèle puts a stop to that, but she's not letting Atys off the hook. She turns him into a tree, sadly saying that she'll keep this tree with her and love it forever.

The opera ends with a scene of grief that may also serve as a warning to mere mortals who get mixed up with the gods, with the chorus singing, "Let everyone on earth feel the horror of such a cruel death."