Perfecting Persée

This morning I wondered, hm will I have anything to say?  This is Opera Atelier’s third Persée this millennium.  And now I have so much to say that I’ll probably have to split it into at least two separate posts.  The fact it’s not actually the same production is part of it, but also –having been goaded by a friend who quoted Joseph Kerman‘s dissing of Lully in Opera as Drama–I feel it’s a matter of honour.  Lully’s honour.  Opera Atelier’s honour.

Whenever I see this opera –and I saw each of the previous productions at least twice each– I come out of the theatre as if a bit inebriated, high on Lully as it were.  I will address that eventually, as it gives me a chance to write about a favourite topic, namely operatic dramaturgy aka how to construct an opera. OR skip to the end if you simply want a review of the production.

I feel very intimately connected to this opera & its incarnations with Opera Atelier.

That first time we were both under the spell of the same wizard.  In 2000, before I started my thesis, I took a directed reading course with Benoit Bolduc, then a relatively new professor at the University of Toronto.  I say “we” because at that time he was also the academic advisor to Opera Atelier, back when they took the historically informed thing so seriously as to allow themselves to be terrorized by it.

Marshall Pynkoski –someone I’ve called a genius on this blog– is the artistic director of Opera Atelier.  At one time they were so cautious about what they were doing that it had to be justified and defended, that historicity being something they took very seriously.  Curiously we both seem to be emerging from that magic spell:

  • me because it’s dawning on me that whether or not I finish my thesis there’s no job waiting
  • Marshall, because he’s no longer terrorized by history books and maybe just maybe believing in himself and his genius enough that he can relax a bit and have fun

But let me get back to Benoit.  He’s truly an amazing professor, now in USA, but at that time in a lovely office at Victoria College.  The directed reading was meant to place my study of Pelléas et Mélisande in a very important context, namely the relationship between music & words in French opera (aka dramaturgy, remember?).  French opera is seriously different from German or Italian or English opera in this regard.  What Kerman disrespected was precisely the thing the French –alone among operatic nations– got right, when everyone else seemed to get it wrong.  As Wagner tells us in Opera and Drama, the form had gone off track, lost its way from its original intentions. Music was to be a means to an end: creating a dramatic form, but instead, drama was being used as a means to opera’s actual (misguided) end, namely to create a musical form.  You go to see Donizetti, as I did Friday, and you see wonderful singing & ensembles, drama being a means to the main end, namely beautiful music.  If we were watching Mozart or Purcell it would be more or less the same.

The frustrating thing with Lully to an operatic aficionado is that it refuses to do what you expect an opera to do, to surrender to that misguided addiction to melody & musical forms.  Indeed, this is also the case with Debussy’s Pelléas.  We’re talking about operas that privilege the text, that don’t get too caught up in giving singers brilliant arias, that the story actually gets told through music.   Bolduc traced a line from the 17th to the 20th century, including Gluck & Bizet.

Where Opera Atelier’s fascination with ballet can seem a bit odd in a Mozart or Weber opera (indeed at one time I used to joke that Opera Atelier is a ballet company pretending to be an opera company) it’s a whole different story with Lully or Charpentier.  With Lully Pynkoski and Opera Atelier were coming home in a real sense, integrating dance effortlessly into the operatic fabric because that’s how it was written in the first place.  It dawns on me that no other opera company can really do what they do, because other companies usually start with a creative team comprised of music & dramaturgy & vocals, dance being somewhere just slightly below sets and just above the person who makes the coffee.

Hello..! Lully was a dance-master, in the court of a King of France who danced!  This is an entirely different kind of opera surely.  Dance isn’t something extraneous.  It’s as fundamental as breath for this kind of opera.  What’s more, it makes perfect sense given Opera Atelier’s complement of talents.

Today, almost 15 years after Benoit Bolduc introduced me to the idea of divertissements, I think I finally got what Lully is doing.  The word is a misnomer, really.  You hear “divertissements” and you think diversion or distraction, as though we’re taken away from the action.  But the action of Persée is built in a very different way from other operas.  Instead of exit arias following recitative, the passions of the sung text find their fullest release in these divertissements.  In Act I it’s more theoretical, but in Act II, it’s a kind of explosion of athleticism, as Persée accepts gifts from the gods, before going off to battle the gorgons.  The closest operatic analogue I can think of is the battle between Siegfried and the dragon in Act II of Siegfried, or perhaps Siegfried’s Rhine-journey in Gotterdammerung.   But this is dance.  And we get similar things in later acts.  The main thing being that these divertissements are central to the dramaturgy, a colossal release of passion and energy through something physical onstage.  These orchestral passages with dance are a curious precursor to the orchestral transformations we see in Wagner, Debussy and even Berg’s Wozzeck.  Unless one has a company that can integrate the dance into the action the way Opera Atelier does, you won’t really understand Lully or Charpentier.  You would be forgiven for thinking Kerman was right.  How could he or anyone know differently, with the usual understanding of opera?  But just because I’ve never seen a narwhal doesn’t mean I don’t believe they exist.

Newness is always a terrible challenge.  We tend to work from what we’ve seen before, even if that limits what we can properly understand .  It’s so funny, because I’ve been seeing operas old & new, struggling gamely to avoid pigeonholes and stereotypes that are inapt, inadequate ways of seeing & hearing.  If you go into a gallery or theatre, only understanding what you see by the template of something else, you may completely miss the point.  Our challenge is to resist the temptation to demand  of something –for example opera– that it do what it has always done.  We walk into an Opera Atelier production, and instead of seeing what it’s actually doing, we measure it by how other operas are done.  Now of course this is by and large what critics do.  They have seen things before and so –on the theory that their sensibility is educated, their experience enlightened & enlightening–we listen to what they say even if their wisdom prevents us from breaking through to anything new.  Are we –the critics at least –going to help facilitate change by imaginatively helping? or are we going to be conservative forces protecting our old culture from anything new or original?

I feel lucky that anyone reads what I say.

Pardon me if I interrupt this essay concerning the dramaturgy of Lully, to speak for a moment about the new production of Persée at the Winter Garden theatre.

Gerard Gauci

Set designer Gerard Gauci

You can probably already tell that I liked it.  Gerard Gauci’s sets are much more elaborate this time, possibly the same way that the Opera Atelier revival of Armide (that was taken to Versailles & Glimmerglass) was bigger & better.  The choreography by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg is the most central body of dance & movement in any of the operas from Opera Atelier, given that at least one climax of each act is actually enacted movement. For example near the end we watch Persée battling rebels in a choreographed fight sequence.  This isn’t a diversion, it’s a central piece of action, even if it is also a hugely entertaining set-piece.  And it’s interspersed with singing, so it’s not like the ballets in Aida or Faust, where the opera seems to stop while another medium takes over for awhile.

Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg

Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg

I’m very fond of the sound of Lully’s orchestras, a very gentle sound in the hands of Tafelmusik baroque orchestra & chorus, especially under David Fallis’s subtle guidance.  My ears are still pulsing with the stunning sounds, bold rhythms and yes, a soft sensuous texture that never covers the singers.  The principals were hugely enjoyable, particularly two recent graduates of the COC’s ensemble studio, namely Chris Enns as Persée and Mireille Asselin as his beloved Andromède.  Lawrence Wiliford was very impressive as Mercure, a role that seems to lie very high.  The gorgons scene –especially Olivier Laquerre as Méduse–was funnier than last time.  Opera Atelier stalwarts such as Curtis Sullivan, Peggy Kriha Dye and Carla Huhtanen as Cassiope were their usual dynamic selves.

Opera Atelier’s Persée continues at the Winter Garden theatre until May 3rd.

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