Though the two short operas have been in Opera Atelier’s repertory for nearly all of its 33 seasons, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion have been paired together for the first time in the company’s current double-bill at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. And it’s likely that I was among the many people in the audience who had never seen either opera before, period.
Thank goodness for one-act operas. They’re like a shot of great espresso, or a single chocolate truffle – the kind of indulgence that’s short-lived, but immediate and totally satisfying. Among all the lengthy, luxuriating opera we see – all the da capo arias and all the Wagner – compact one-acts like Actéon and Pygmalion allow even the most hardcore of opera fans to admit that their attention spans don’t always like to be stretched so thin.
I think this production is my favourite of Atelier’s that I’ve seen (so far). Director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg let both pieces amble naturally along, yet they evoke a very specific world with their aesthetic; there are ingenious details that pop out along the way to offer doses of humour, intrigue and dramatic tension.
David Fallis pulls an earthy sound out of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and chorus, all supporting the heroic and human sound of tenor Colin Ainsworth, who sings the title roles in both operas. The double-bill is a great arc for Ainsworth, moving from the submissive, apologetic pleas of Actéon into the full-bodied Pygmalion. Ainsworth delivers an extended monster aria of coloratura and awesome high notes, seemingly without a drop of sweat.
Sandwiched between Charpentier and Rameau is a new(ish) piece by Edwin Huizinga (violin) and Tyler Gledhill (dance), called Inception, the first Opera Atelier commission. Inception stands on its own, but its place in this production was a link, even a prequel, to Pygmalion. It sounded very ur-; ur-music, ur-movement, ur-art. Huizinga’s plaintive, modal violin writing seemed to evoke the building blocks of music; Gledhill’s physicality evolves, moving from amorphous to triumphantly human.
All the pieces of this double-bill – really, a triple-bill – are not just in place, they’re beautiful. There’s excellent ensemble work; there’s delightful pantomime; there’s glitter, angel wings and confetti.
Even more fun is peeling back the layers of meaning. Simply put, Actéon is feminist and Pygmalion is misogynist. I oversimplify. In Actéon, a man is punished for desiring a woman. Diana (Mireille Asselin) and her ladies, full of prickly attitude, are offended that Actéon sees them bathing. They’ve just said, to no one in particular, “What a relief to disdain Love’s ardour.” Clearly, Actéon and his penis are not welcome at this particular riverbank. So unwelcome, in fact, that Diana turns Actéon into a stag, and the gods watch as he is torn apart by his own hunting hounds.
Turning on a dime, we come to Pygmalion, where a man is rewarded for falling in love (and likely with some lust). The god Amour (Asselin) is so thrilled with Pygmalion’s love for the stone woman he is carving that he turns her into his real-life girlfriend. It’s always funny to consider literally the story of a sculptor who falls in love with his own sculpture. At what point does Pygmalion notice that the hunk of rock is sexy? Is it when he finishes sculpting her right breast? Her left hip? Is it that his sculpture is so physically beautiful that he loves it? Or is it because this “woman” cannot disappoint Pygmalion? She can’t tell him no, she can’t disagree with him, she can’t have eyes for anyone else. In Rameau’s opera, the now-living sculpture (Meghan Lindsay) says to Pygmalion, grossly, “All that I know of myself is that I love you.” Blech.
Interestingly, on my way to the show I was listening to a podcast episode about so-called incels. I couldn’t help but think that these self-described “involuntary celibates” would love the story of Pygmalion.
I’m not sure why, but this production left me contented and with Rameau’s catchy coloratura in my head. Maybe I should have been more miffed, though. Actéon depicts strong women, but they’re also arguably overreactive and easily offended. And Pygmalion is a story about a man who chooses a fake woman over a real one, and ends up with a shell of a human woman, who’s beautiful and won’t ever – nay, can’t ever, because he designed her – make him sad.
I now have an itch to hurl footwear at my husband, yelling, “Here are your slippers! There are your slippers!”