Mortals, Beware: Lully's 'Atys' Lully shows us what happens when mere mortals get involved with the gods.

Mortals, Beware: Lully's 'Atys'

From The Opéra Comique In Paris

Hear An Introduction To 'Atys'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Cybèle in Lully's 'Atys' at the Opera Comique, Paris. Pierre Grosbois/Opera Comique, Paris hide caption

toggle caption
Pierre Grosbois/Opera Comique, Paris

Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Cybèle in Lully's 'Atys' at the Opera Comique, Paris.

Pierre Grosbois/Opera Comique, Paris

Though it may not be obvious, the 1999 Hollywood hit Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, addresses a dramatic theme that's been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years — and which also drives this week's opera, a 17th-century tragedy by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

In the movie, Grant's character, a sort of British everyman named William, falls in love with a superstar movie actress named Anna, played by Roberts. The affair goes swimmingly at first, but their two worlds inevitably collide and she dumps him. Eventually, it all works out, but not without a whole lot of heartache in the meantime.

In a key scene, during a well-lubricated, late-night bull session, William looks to one of his buddies for consolation. "Let's face it," says the friend. "Anna's a goddess. You know what happens when mortals get involved with the gods." "Buggered, is it?" says William. "Every time," replies the friend. And the title character in Lully's Atys might well have used that same advice.

The Hit Single

Lully's groundbreaking operas relied heavily on atmosphere and spectacle, as in this evocative scene ("Le Sommeil") in Act Three. Hoping to win Atys' heart, Cybèle brings in Sleep and Morpheus (tenors Paul Agnew and Cyril Auvity), along with Phobétor and Phantasmus (bass Callum Thorpe and baritone Benjamin Alunni), to gently put Atys to sleep ("sommeil"), and encourage pleasant dreams of love and longing.

'Le Sommeil'

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The opera was composed in 1676, and it's in a genre that Lully largely invented, called tragédie en musique — tragedy in music. The style dominated opera in France for much of the century. Yet ironically, Lully himself wasn't French.

The B Side

The intensity of Lully's drama reminds us that a simple recitative can be as highly-charged as any high-flying aria. In this scene for Cybéle, which ends the third act, the anguished goddess feels betrayed by hope, after realizing that Atys is in love with someone else. She begins with the words "Espoir si cher et si doux" ("Hope, beloved and sweet") and ends by asking "Pourquoi me trompez-vous?" ("Why have you deceived me?").

'Hope, Beloved and Sweet'

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

He was born in Italy in 1632 as Giovanni Battista Lulli. He moved to France at age 13 to teach Italian to a teenaged cousin of the French king, Louis XIV, whose patronage was also a driving force in the development of early French opera. The composer eventually became a French citizen, changing his name in the process.

In Atys, the title character is a young man in Phrygia who seems to be living a charmed life. He's best friends with the king, he's in love with a beautiful woman and he's about to be given a powerful new job. Then he catches the eye of Cybèle, a romantically inclined goddess who won't take "no" for an answer.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production from the Opéra Comique in Paris, featuring one of the world's finest Baroque ensembles, Les Arts Florissants, with conductor William Christie. The stars are tenor Bernard Richter as Atys, soprano Emmanuelle de Negri as Sangaride, the woman he loves, and mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d'Oustrac as the dangerously petulant Cybèle. The opera, which was co-produced by Opéra Comique, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Théâtre de Caen, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Arts Florissants, will be staged in Brooklyn at BAM later this month.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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.


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."