Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Opera Atelier's production of J. B. Lully's Persée

Persee, Photo by Bruce Zinger

The Elgin Theatre, Toronto - Persee, Photo by Bruce Zinger

With Opera Atelier's remarkable production of J. B. Lully's Persée, one is magically transported to Versailles in 1770!

Sitting in the royal box is Louis XVI and with him, his wife to be, Marie Antoinette of "Let them eat cake" fame. Unfortunately, Louis will soon earn his own notoriety as the only King of France ever to be executed.

Tonight, we are all captivated by this early French Baroque opera that relies on ancient mythology, embellished by the talented Tafelmusik Chamber Choir led by Ivars Taurins and the gifted Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra playing period pieces, divided stage left and right, a harpsichord on each side. Add an exceptional corps de ballet, stunning, extravagant costumes, clever sets and props that are a visual delight, and we are in for a thrilling evening!

And the kicker is that this ingenious production is so authentically dated that it's ironically avant-garde! Another bonus is that it's staged in Toronto's Elgin Theatre, not quite Versailles, (The elevators are only 100 years old, built by Otis, the same firm that constructed The Titanic!) but splendidly ornate in its own right with myriad gilded figures gracing the walls. My single complaint - would that the seats were a tad more modern.

Elgin Theatre detail, photo by Mike Keenan
Elgin Theatre detail, photo by Mike Keenan

Persée is a tale of heroic Perseus (The son of Jupiter, therefore son of god, and an interesting motif.) as he battles the monstrous Medusa to save the mortals in Ethiopia and rescue Princess Andromeda from a terrible fate. (In modern terms, think of a beautiful young lady tied to a train track by a villain sporting a moustache.)

Prior to the opera, co-Artistic Director, Marshall Pynkoski (His colleague is choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg) took the stage to make some world-class announcements. "This, the third time production of Persée - finally complete in all of its details - will tour to the Royal Opera House of Versailles following the Toronto run, the first time the opera has appeared on that stage since 1770. Persée will be performed three times at The Royal Opera House, Versailles on May 23, 24, and 25, 2014, a source of great pride and joy for the company. And next year we will be bringing OA's signature style to the stage of the La Scala Opera House in Milan." Wow! Not too shabby.

Tenor Chris Enns, an alumnus of the COC, makes his Opera Atelier debut in the role of Persée while soprano Mireille Asselin, another COC grad, performs as Andromède, and her rival Mérope is played by soprano Peggy Kriha Dye, all quite convincing in their roles. Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre (Céphée/Méduse) and baritone Vasil Garvanliev (Phinée) are crowd favourites, the former eliciting humour in his nasty role and the latter quite nasty himself for most of the opera. Soprano Carla Huhtanen (Cassiope), tenor Lawrence Wiliford (Mercury), another crowd favourite, bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan (Triton), tenor Aaron Ferguson (Euryale/Amphimedon), soprano Meghan Lindsay (Nymphe Guerriere/Venus) and bass-baritone Stephen Hagedus (Protenor/Divinite Infernale fill out the cast singing en francais, none, of course, using microphones.

Pynkoski directs with incredible zest; Zingg expertly leads the dancers in Dora Rust D'Eye's elegant costumes; Gerard Gauci fashions fanciful sets; and Bonnie Beecher the lighting. The Artists of Atelier Ballet and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the baton of David Fallis are wonderfully coordinated, and there are English subtitles for those of us with high school French.

This ancient soap opera plot involves Mérope, who loves Persée, who loves Andromède, who is loved by Phinée. Further complications arise when Queen Cassiope's vanity causes an annoyed goddess Juno to send Medusa as her hit man to knock off the mortals with just one look at her terrible serpent's head to exact revenge and thereby threaten King Céphée's kingdom. Persée, being the son of Jupiter, enlists the aid of other gods such as Mercury who arms him with some fancy flying boots and Vulcan who forges him suitable shield and weapons to dispatch a sleeping Medusa along with multiple armed combats and Gerard Gauci's wonderful, giant sea serpent.

Zingg's choreography is superb, her long swan-like neck mesmerizing as dancers sweep on and off the stage with deceptively simple graceful footwork typical of the opulent 17th century. Because Persée was written in 1683, only a few decades after opera was invented, we are treated to both art and history tonight

Two performers who stood out for me were Peggy Kriha Dye as Mérope, depicting a desperate, hopeless love for Perseus with dramatic flair, absorbing the audience in her plight and the equally mismatched Vasil Garvanliev as Phineas, Perseus's strutting, plotting rival for Andromeda, replete with the sting and fury of his untenable situation. I also thoroughly enjoyed the comedic Act 3 with Méduse played by bass-baritone Oliver Lacquerre, and his/her fellow Gorgons as he laments that he is so ugly that he is manly, the three going topless as in a Daytona Beach March break. With Persée, Marshall Pynkoski has taken a virtual museum piece with antique costumes, instruments and music, stage effects and machinery, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir, stylized acting, ballet constrained by long skirts, and flat, opulent sets, and he has brilliantly transformed it all into a powerful gestalt worthy of Jungian archetype, a bizarre yet luminous evening of great musical entertainment. Bravo! Opera Atelier is Canada's premier period opera/ballet company, specializing in producing opera, ballet and drama from the 17th and 18th centuries. While drawing upon the aesthetics and ideals of the period, Opera Atelier goes beyond "reconstruction" and infuses each production with an inventive theatricality that resonates with modern audiences. Since 1985, led by founding artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Opera Atelier has garnered acclaim for its performances at home as well as in the United States, Europe and Asia.


The Elgin Theatre, Toronto
The Elgin Theatre, Toronto

Lully, Persée: Infortunés, qu'un monstre affreux from Act 2

Dance. Drama. History. Opera Atelier presents Lully's Persée

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