Opera Atelier recreates the story of Perseus with opera and ballet in Persée playing at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto
The head of Medusa, crawling with snakes and dripping with blood glared down at us during the opening strains of Persée by Lully in Opera Atelier’s 2014 production. In characteristic adherence to period convention there was no action during the overture, only this striking image from classical mythology that reappeared at the opening of each act.
Classical mythology was standard fodder for early operas and this French work that premiered in 1682 is in keeping with that tradition. It tells the story of Perseus, a pre-Olympian hero of Greek legend known for slaying Medusa and rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus.
There were several Atelier regulars in the cast, as well as performers making their Opera Atelier debut. It was clear that cast members were all so comfortable with period conventions of stance and gesture that the stylized poses and movements were second nature. The 17th Century approach to stage movement has the potential to seem forced and pretentious to modern day standards. In this performance baroque movements were infused with so much dramatic intensity that they seemed completely natural and full of emotional credibility.
The costumes were lavish – colourful and dazzling. Ballet is an integral component of all Atelier shows and the choreography in this production was riveting. The use of ballet is undoubtedly my favourite thing about historically informed productions. Baroque operas typically contain long instrumental passages that were intended as the accompaniment to a ballet scene. In modernized productions, the ballets are usually eliminated. If no other action is added to these passages, it has the potential to break apart the story and make the show somewhat dry. In this production, the ballet scenes cleverly illustrated the story and added to the narrative. The dancing was also beautiful enough to be its own reward.
Despite its happy ending, Persée is still considered a tragedy because the overall tone of the music and story is dramatic rather than comedic. Atelier took full advantage of opportunities for comic relief, especially during Medusa’s big scene. It is not always easy to make jokes that are over 300 years old read for modern day audiences. The comedic moments in this production were laugh-out-loud funny.
Atelier also managed to design a set that was captivating and innovative without abandoning the period conventions it is so committed to. Several painted backdrops were used to change the scene and each backdrop was rich with colour and charm. Simple effects, like thunder and lightning were used very effectively and were still engaging for audiences accustomed to seeing much more technologically advanced effects.
Lully’s music is sublime and a wonderful introduction to early music for the uninitiated. Combined with gorgeous singing and orchestral playing, beautiful dancing, striking costumes and an amazing set, Persée was a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears.
- Persée is playing until November 2, 2013 at The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on April 29 & 30 and May 2 & 3
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $189. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets from $24.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416.314.2884
Photo of the company of Opera Atelier’s Persée by Bruce Zinger.