Review: Actéon and Pygmalion (Opera Atelier)

Toronto’s Opera Atelier presents a double bill: Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion

Opera Atelier’s 2018 fall production Actéon & Pygmalion is a Greek mythology double feature presenting Charpentier’s rendering of Actéon and Rameau’s interpretation of Pygmalion. Premiering over 50 years apart in 1684 and 1748 respectively, both works are quintessential examples of early French opera and staple fare for Opera Atelier. This production branched out from the company’s usual wheelhouse by introducing Pygmalion with their first commissioned new work.

Inception by Edwin Huizinga is a violin-ballet duet that depicts the passion of Eros and sets the stage and mood for what is to come. The piece is described as baroque-inspired, but the music is very new. The vestiges of the baroque that remained were the elegant simplicity of the melody and implied harmonies in the violin part and the stylized grace of traditional ballet in the dance solo.

While the music was in significant contrast to the baroque double feature, the total effect fit together quite seamlessly. The piece is composed and performed by Edwin Huizinga and choreographed and danced by Tyler Gledhill. The company has plans to expand the piece into a full production and the commission represents a significant milestone in innovation for Opera Atelier.

Actéon is a master hunter and prince who has the deep misfortune of stumbling across the goddess Diana during bath time with her nymphs. The offended goddess of the hunt turns him into a stag and he is torn to pieces by his own hounds. In the era of #metoo there is something very satisfying about this tale. The simple story is told in one act, six scenes and runs for just under an hour.

Consistent with French opera of this era, the music is buoyant and has a lively, danceable quality. Still, there is a harmonic complexity that communicates the thrill of the chase and the savagery of the hunt. The production is in keeping with the dark theme and has a much more menacing, eerie feel than Atelier’s usual light hearted, technicolour vibrancy. Dark and neutral tones predominate in the set and costume design. While the cast and chorus all have light, pure voices that are suited to early music, we heard a bit more darkness and shade from the singing as well, adding nicely to the build up to a sticky end.

Pygmalion is a very different story about a man experiencing an early incarnation of object sexuality. He has fallen in love with a statue he sculpted and no mortal woman can compete against her for his affection, including his girlfriend Céphise (Allyson McHardy). This time, our protagonist finds favour with the goddess Venus and she brings the object of his affections to life. After five whirlwind scenes, they live happily ever after.

The juxtaposition of the two pieces, interspersed by the new work, provides an excellent opportunity to see how early opera evolved over the course of half a century. The relentless dotted rhythms that lend buoyancy to the first work are more relaxed in the second, giving the second piece a much greater sense of repose. The overall effect is quite charming and it is easy to be engaged by this unlikely love story.

Colin Ainsworth, an Opera Atelier regular, is currently the company’s artist in residence and performs the title role in both pieces. His residency provides a valuable opportunity for aspiring and emerging baroque singers to learn from his expertise with period gestures and vocal technique.

The cast features several singers who are well known and loved by Atelier patrons, including Meghan Lindsay, Mireille Asselin, and Christopher Enns. The show is also an excellent opportunity for new comers to early music. Both works are told in one act and provide enough contrast that audience members are likely to enjoy at least one show. The addition of the commissioned new work is a history-making presentation for established patrons and newcomers alike.

Details:

  • Actéon & Pygmalion is playing until November 3, 2018 at The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on October 25, 27 & November 2; with additional matinees at 3 PM on October 28 and 4:30 PM on November 3.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $189. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets from $24.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-314-2884

Photo of Tyler Gledhill and Edwin Huizinga by Bruce Zinger

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