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Actéon and Pygmalion – Review of two gems from Opera Atelier

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Opera Atelier has chosen two one-act gems for its fall production. They are Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion, works based on Greek myths that are wonderfully antithetical and complementary. I have a feeling that Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, the Co-Artistic Directors of Opera Atelier, commissioned these works for the current season. Yes, I know that Actéon has been around since 1684 and Pygmalion premiered in 1748, but I have no time to be confused by facts.
Mr. Pynkoski as a director, wanted operas and Ms Zingg as a choreographer wanted ballets. They convinced the two composers to give them operas-cum-ballet or perhaps the other way around to maintain gender equilibrium. Ms Zingg deserves the concession since she is celebrating her 33rd year with Opera Atelier.
Actéon, you will no doubt recall, is the Theban prince who loves hunting but is indifferent to the love of women. He worships Diana (or Artemis for the purists) the virgin goddess of the hunt who prefers the company of nymphs and four-legged creatures in the forest to anyone else’s company. No erotic love, please.
Actéon has heard that a bear is despoiling Diana’s forest and he goes with his friend to get rid of the creature that is harming the goddess that he worships. Completely by happenstance, he sees Diana bathing au naturel. That is verboten and Diana decides to punish him. She turns the hunter Actéon into a stag and his dogs have him for lunch. Not a happy ending.
Pygmalion is different. He is great artist and sculpts a beautiful woman. Being a romantic, he falls in love with the statue and prays to Venus, the goddess of love, to do something about his passion. Enter Eros who brings the statue to life. His girlfriend Céphise is not too pleased and storms out of his studio. The statue becomes Galatea and is taught to dance, falls in love with Pygmalion and they live happily ever after.
The moral of the stories being that if you interact with goddesses, forget chastity (yours or the god’s), find out how she feels about being seen naked and go for art instead of hunting.
The production of the two gems is a visual and aural delight. Tenor Colin Ainsworth sings Actéon, the chaste but impassioned worshipper of Diana and the equally passionate but perfectly human Pygmalion. He modulates his voice beautifully to the demands of Baroque opera and we enjoy every note of it.
The splendidly-voiced soprano Mireille Asselin, (like Ainsworth, a veteran of Opera Atelier productions) sings the roles of Diana and Eros in beautifully executed performances.
Soprano Meghan Lindsay sings Aréthuze in Actéon and Galatea in Pygmalion. When a statue is given life by Eros and she tells you that her first desire is to please you, you have a winner and Ms Lindsay convinces us that we do.
The solo vocal singing is supplemented by the Chorus of the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum with members of the Choir of the Theatre of Early Music and they are simply superb.
Ballet forms an integral part of Actéon and Pygmalion. The hunters and the nymphs in Actéon and the dances performed in teaching Galatea to dance in Pygmalion display Ms Zingg’s choreographic talent and the exquisiteness of the Artists of Atelier Ballet.
Gerard Gauci’s sets emphasize the beauty of the mythical world as do the costumes by Gauci for Actéon and Michael Gianfrancesco for Pygmalion.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis brings the full aural pleasure of the music to the fore.
In the end you are transported to, dare I say it, almost magically to the mythical world of Ancient Greece as seen by two Baroque French composers and brought to life, almost Galatea-like, by the artists of Opera Atelier.
Actéon by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Pygmalion by Jean-Philippe Rameau, presented by Opera Atelier, run until November 3, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.