It has been a great pleasure for me to return to these two miniature masterpieces for Opera Atelier’s 2018-2019 season. We have a long history with Actéon and Pygmalion, having produced both operas on two occasions in Toronto and taken Actéon on tour to the Seoul Arts Center in South Korea.
In retrospect it seems incredible to me that we have never had these two operas on the same bill. Their pairing seems so natural and allows us a fascinating insight into the disparate aesthetics of the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century and Louis XV’s court in the 18th century.
Actéon had its premiere in 1684 – possibly in the private apartments of Princess de Guise during the spring hunting season. At this time, Versailles and Louis XIV were very much under the sway of Louis’ morganatic wife, Madame de Maintenon. Deeply religious and conservative, her influence over the aging court of Versailles was immense. It is no coincidence that Actéon concludes with swift retribution for unbridled desire and a lament on the part of Actéon’s companions who have unwittingly hunted him following his transformation into a stag. The message is clear: lust and desire transforms human beings into beasts and ultimately leads them to destruction.
I find it particularly satisfying dramatically that the audience is unprepared for the opera’s tragic conclusion. Actéon begins full of humour, charm and excitement. It then turns on a dime, catching the audience unaware and delivers an unexpected dramatic punch within a very short time frame.
Actéon represents 17th century storytelling at its best. The French obsession with detailed, descriptive narrative makes exceptional demands on the actors as they narrate descriptions of their locations, events that happened off-stage and their own emotional responses.
Pygmalion introduces us to a completely different world. Pygmalion premiered in 1748 when Louis XV was in his prime. His magnificent mistress Madam de Pompadour ensured that Versailles was kept in a state of perpetual excitement – a glorious house party for the young and beautiful court surrounding the King.
The hedonism and joie de vivre of Versailles is reflected in the storytelling of Pygmalion.
The sculptor’s lament at his hopeless fate is deeply moving, but lasts only a matter of minutes before the object of his sexual obsession is brought to life. In the court of Louis XV, desire is rewarded rather than punished and the ensuing dance and song extravaganza is worthy of a Broadway musical.
This does not in any way mitigate the profound beauty of Rameau’s achievement. The score is a ravishing confection of the most popular dances in France in the mid-18th century and depicts a world that is, unwittingly, dancing toward a precipice.
It is a great honour for us to have been invited to bring these quintessentially French masterpieces to the Royal Opera House at Versailles. They will also represent Opera Atelier and Canada at our debut in Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
I wish to thank all of the singers and dancers involved in these productions. It is rare to find artists of this calibre willing to act so generously as ensemble players when they are all respected soloists in their own right. They have proven to be the best of team players, focusing their energies on bringing these exceptional jewels of French Baroque opera and ballet to life.
Actéon & Pygmalion runs Oct. 25 – Nov. 3 at the Elgin Theatre. Tickets start at just $39!
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