Company of Persée. Photo by Bruce Zinger
Reviewed by James Karas
How do you bring an opera that premiered in 1682 and was staged in a revised version in 1770 for a royal wedding to full and glorious life? Remember production methods were very different then and the opera reflects its 17th century values and is rather static at times.
If the opera is Lully’s Persée, just give it to Opera Atelier and its Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and they will deliver a production that is simply well-sung, colourful, stylized and, in a word, brilliant.
Persée is based on the myth of Perseus and Andromeda (I will stick to the English version of all the names) who are in love but have a few impediments to deal with. The toughest one is the once beautiful Medusa who has been turned into a snake-haired monster. One look by her and you are turned into a stone.
Everything good and ill is brought about by the gods. Perseus has friends on Olympus including Jupiter who happens to be his father. With considerable help from the immortals, Perseus will try to kill Medusa. The story is a bit convoluted so let’s not worry too much about the plot outline. Beside, a god will come down from the sky at the end and set everything right.
Pynkoski and Set Designer Gerard Gauci deliver a brilliantly colourful production. From the costumes to the sets, to the monsters, to the deus ex machina, we are treated to a dazzling array of colours. There are scenes in the royal palace of Ethiopia, the bleak cave of Medusa and the gorgons, and the seacoast that have vibrant and flamboyant sets.
Choreographer Zingg provides a veritable ballet interspersed throughout the opera. The artists of the Atelier Ballet never fail to enhance the action of the opera especially when there is the smallest suggestion that the performance may become static.
True to the principles of Opera Atelier, the performance is stylized as it may have looked in the time of Louis XIV. Arms up, bent at the elbows with palms facing forward, the torso bent slightly to the side is one of the classic, stylized positions. This is not an opera that calls for naturalistic acting and Pynkoski makes extensive use of baroque conventions.
The above-noted aspects of the production may be considered as of secondary importance in many productions, but I think they play a primary role in this Persée. You can have good singers and a fine orchestra and fall short of the quality of this production without the elements provided by Pynkoski and Zingg.
The singing ranged from the exceptional to the adequate. Sopranos Mireille Asselin as Andromeda, Peggy Kriha Dye as Merope and Carla Huhtanen as Queen Cassiopeia did excellent work in their respective roles. I would have preferred a tenor with a lighter voice for the role of Perseus but Christopher Enns managed to be sufficiently heroic and vocally adept to carry the role of our hero.
Phineus is the human heavy of the opera (he too is in love with Andromeda and wants to jettison Perseus to Hades) and baritone Vasil Garvanliev did a fine job in the role.
Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre sounded a bit stilted as King Cepheus and was wooden as Medusa. Pynkoski treats the scene with the monster as outright burlesque but LaQuerre was only partially successful in the part.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performed brilliantly.
This is Baroque opera at its finest and it is no wonder that the next stop of the production will be the Royal Opera House in Versailles. It should prove a great lesson for the French on how to produce French opera. Only in Canada, eh?
Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully with libretto by Philippe Quinault opened on April 26 and will run until May 3, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com