I’ve been attending performances of Opera Atelier for over twenty years off and on but until viewing this recording of Lully’s Persée I’d never seen them on DVD. I was curious to see how the unique Opera Atelier style would come over on DVD and to what extent watching a recording, which I could compare fairly with other DVD performances, would affect my views of Opera Atelier’s strengths and weaknesses.
For those who don’t live in Toronto or any of the places Opera Atelier tour to it’s probably worth a general introduction because Opera Atelier is, if nothing else, unusual as opera companies go. Opera Atelier is a company with a very specific mission. They produce baroque era operas in a period performance tradition. “Baroque” is interpreted broadly enough that it takes in Mozart and Gluck but somewhat narrowly in that beyond them it seems to mean “French”. The typical Opera Atelier season will see a Mozart production and a piece from the French court opera. They have strayed as far as Purcell a couple of times but that’s about it so Lully is very much what they are about. In their own words “Opera Atelier strives to create productions that would have been recognized and respected in their own time while providing a thrilling theatrical experience for modern audiences”. The first part of that claim I think is true. The second is sometimes achieved but by no means always. So what do they mean by “productions that would have been recognized and respected in their own time”. So what does that mean?
Here’s a shopping list:
- Period instruments and conductors who are period instrument specialists. Almost invariably they use the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir; an excellent Toronto based outfit.
- Young singers who have highly developed acting skills
- A style of acting that uses a vocabulary of stylized gestures and involves singers holding stylized poses for fairly lengthy periods
- A ballet style that is constrained by the women wearing long skirts and low heels rather than point shoes. This tends to resolve into something that looks more like court dancing than ballet as one usually sees it. For some reason castanets and finger cymbals are de rigueur for at least one number in every production.
- Period costumes in the sense that they might have been used on stage in the period in question; often quite opulent
- Stage effects and machinery appropriate to the period; thunder machines but no computer projections, gods tend to descend on clouds etc.
For some years now all Opera Atelier’s Toronto shows have been at the relatively intimate Elgin theatre (1500 seats) which is also appropriately opulent!
This production of Persée was originally given in 2000 (when I saw it) and was revived in 2004 with Hervé Niquet conducting. It’s very typical Opera Atelier. Sets and costumes are what one expects with a tendency to a limited colour palette of orange, red and brown. The cast is made up of young, physically attractive, mostly local singers. The Opera Atelier ballet does it thing (complete with castanets and finger cymbals). So how does it go.
The first two acts set up two basic plots. There are four lovers and we have the typical French baroque scenario of a person pretending to love one person while really pursuing another. This hardly matters as it’s obvious that Persée will end up with Andromède. In the second strand we learn that Juno is a rage and has sent the gorgon Méduse to do unpleasant things. There are games to, unsuccessfully, placate her. Mercure descends on a cloud and arms Persée with a shield and
spear sword and magic helmet. There is some very fine, stylish singing from Stephanie Novacek (Cassiope) and Alain Coulombe (Phinée). They are well backed up by Monica Whicher (Mériope) but I am less convinced by Marie Lenormand (Andromède), who sounded stressed, squeaky even, in her higher register.
Cyril Auvity (Persée) sounds very young and looks about fifteen. I’ll explore the implications of this in discussing Act 3. Colin Ainsworth was a very campy Mercure. It was, all in all, a very typical couple of acts of French baroque tragédie lyrique. There is lots of beautiful, if rather unexciting, music, the plot is predictable and the ballet is fairly dull.
Act 3 brings on Méduse, sung here by Oliver Lacquerre, and his/her fellow gorgons. It now starts to get campy. Three guys with their shirts off and rubber snakes in their hair being lectured by a campy god are bound to tempt the director to play it for laughs and that’s pretty much what happens. Opera Atelier tends toward comedy if it can possibly be justified (as I suspect anyone who is going to the upcoming Don Giovanni will find out). Mercure then puts the gorgons to sleep so that Persée can come on and decapitate the sleeping Méduse which doesn’t seem espeially heroic.
Acts 4 and 5 are a bit of a mixed bag. Juno is still pissed off so Andromède must be sacrificed to a sea monster though quite who is doing the sacrificing isn’t clear. Curtis Sullivan, who earlier sang a cyclops and a gorgon gets his third shirt off role as a Triton. Shirt off baritones are another Opera Atelier trademark. The sea monster who looks rather like Puff the Magic Dragon appears and is stylishly slain by Persée who thereby clinches the marriage deal. A very cross Phinée appears with his henchmen to disrupt the celebrations. The gentlemen of the ballet leap around in much heavily stylized sword play until Persée uses the head of Méduse to turn Phinée and company to stone. After a celebratory ballet Vénus descends on another cloud and turns all the good guys into constellations. There’s tons of action and a lot of good singing especially from Novacek and Coulombe. Throughout, Niquet in the pit paces things nicely and Tafelmusik play very well.
Overall it’s good fun but the question of “authenticity” rears its ugly head. The DVD booklet tells us that the work is an allegory of Louis XIV’s struggle with William of Orange’s anti-French coalition and that Méduse represents William and Persée, Louis (and the sea monster the Spanish Navy). If one buys that one would expect the character of the Roi Soleil to be rather more solemn and heroic than the prettyboy Persée we get here. So now we are into the core problem of what is “authentic”. For Opera Atelier acting style, staging and choreography seem to be sacrosanct whereas deeper dramatic meanings are up for grabs which is, in some ways, the opposite approach to how someone like David Alden or Robert Carsen approach these kind of works. Which works best? There’s no easy answer to that but I do think the constraints that the Opera Atelier approach place on the director (or rather which he places on himself because Marshall Pynkowski and Opera Atelier amount to the same thing) restrict the director’s ability to create an emotional experience analogous to that of the original audience. I guess I can’t see a good rationale for privileging some aspects of “authenticity”, always, over others.
So much for the production for stage. How does it translate to DVD? Unfortunately not as well as one might hope. Partly this is a function of the stylized acting which doesn’t work as well in close up as it does in the theatre (and note that I’ve seen most Opera Atelier performances from the front row of the orchestra so I’m not talking long distance). The biggest problem is the video direction which is bordering on the inept. One of Opera Atelier’s strengths is its ability to present carefully composed tableau; whether static or dynamic, but either way much of the time the audience needs to see the whole stage. What we get here are a weird mix of camera angles and strangely timed cuts between them. There’s a camera apparently at the front of the mezzanine which gives a good picture of the stage but it’s not used much, except for close ups. There are cameras low stage right and left which give a very weird angle indeed and there’s a camera maybe ten rows back in the orchestra which, as often as not, shows a picture in which the bottom third is the back of peoples’ heads and bits of instruments. It’s very odd.
Technically the disc is fine. It has a good anamorphic 16:9 picture and a very good DTS 5.1 soundtrack (also DD 5.1 and PCM stereo). There are English, French and German subtitles and the package contains a short but useful essay on the work and the production.
I’d certainly recommend the disc, with reservations about the camera work, to anyone who isn’t familiar with Opera Atelier. For those who are, you’ll get what you expect.