Review: PERSEE

by Lynn on April 30, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Music by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Libretto by Philippe Quinault. Directed by Marshall Pynkoski. Conducted by David Fallis. Choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Set by Gerard Gauci. Costumes by Dora Rust D’Eye. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Starring: Mireille Asselin, Christopher Enns, Aaron Ferguson, Vasil Garvanliev, Stephen Hegedus, Carla Huhtanen, Peggy Kriha Dye, Olivier Laquerre, Meghan Lindsay, Curtis Sullivan, Lawrence Wiliford.

Produced by Opera Atelier. Plays until May 3, 2014.

Persée is a sumptuous looking, scrupulously researched production that gives us a sense of what a baroque opera might have looked like when it was first done.

The Story. Never mess with the gods or they will get even and bite you. Queen Cassiope has compared her beauty to that of the goddess Juno. Juno is mightily miffed and sends Méduse, the snake-haired harridan, to wreck havoc on the people. Anyone who looks her in the face turns to stone. King Céphée is terrified at the damage that Méduse is laying on his people.

Then there’s the complicated love angle to the story. The queen’s sister Mérope loves Persée. But Persée loves Andromède who loves him. Andromède is King Céphée’s daughter. She is betrothed to Phinée, her uncle! (Kinky or what?) The uncle thinks that Andromède is in love with someone else (duh).

Then the King announces that Persée will fight Méduse, and if he wins, gets the hand of Andromède (and presumably the rest of her as well) as his own. The uncle is furious. Through wily manoeuvring Persée cuts off the head of Méduse and is ready to win his bride. But the dastardly uncle in cahoots with Juno, the miffed goddess, plot further complications. While Mérope and Andromède both confess their love for Persée and in a way bond, Mérope is killed by an arrow by one of Phinée’s assassins. This means that Persée and Andromède can wed. And since somebody died (Mérope) Juno is appeased for the moment and all is peace.

The Production. As with my opera reviews I will only deal with the theatricality of the production and not comment on the dance technique or music of this production of Persée. Director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, co-founders and co-artistic directors of Opera Atelier since 1985, have been dedicated to recreating baroque operas from the 17th and 18th century. With slavish attention to the history, paintings, descriptions, and research of the time, they have produced productions that look like exquisite replicas, or what one thinks might be of the original.

Persée is lavishly designed by Gerard Gauci on sets and Dora Rust D’Eye for the original costume design. The set realizes the world of kings and gods. Backdrops are ornate, the sense of opulence is everywhere. The costumes are billowing and rich looking for the women and just as tailored and tighted (in that they wear tights) for the men.

Rather than go for realism in the acting and body movement, Pynkoski goes for idealism—depicting stylized poses, precise stances. His references are paintings of the day, So the hands are held up in a precise way. The legs are angled, the hip sways perhaps to one side. Scenes end with all on stage posed again, as if in a painting. I would like to see one of the paintings that have been referenced out of curiosity.

The same thinking is used by Zingg as she choreographs. The athleticism of ballet of today is not her focus as much as the graceful recreation of ballet of the baroque period. Every exit of the ballerinas, the placement of the front arm and the angle of the back arm, is precise. The same goes for the male dancers. Even at the bow, the acknowledgement of the orchestra is precise and elegant when taken in context. Perhaps to the cynical among us it’s a bit twee. No matter. It’s fascinating.

I do find that the women singers of Opera Atelier fare better than some of the men, both in acting and singing. I hope that imbalance improves over time.

Comment. I am always intrigued at the artistry of Opera Atelier as they depict baroque opera in our modern times, as a different kind of art form. You always know what you will get with this company. You will never find a penchant for ‘interpretation’ of the story, changing the time period, or putting a contemporary spin on it, as some opera companies to. Are the productions ‘museum pieces?’ Perhaps. But museums are important in acting as a resource to tell us what the past was like. Opera Atelier has devoted itself to introduce its audiences to operas of the baroque era, done as Pynkoski and Zingg believe they were done in the past. The fact that this company is invited to perform in both Versailles and La Scalla indicates that their expertise and artistry is recognized universally.

Produced by Opera Atelier

Opened: April 26, 2014
Closed: May 3, 2014
Cast: 11, 7 men, 4 women, (plus members of the chorus and ballet)
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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