On July 21, 1682, all was in readiness at Versailles. Finally, after months of delay following its public premiere in Paris, Persée, a new opera by Maître de musique, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was to be staged for Louis XIV at court. An elaborate amphitheatre had been constructed in the palace gardens complete with lavish set and ample special effects machinery. Shortly before the King was to take his seat, the sky turned dark, the heavens opened and it poured. Le roi soleil was not amused. Lully scrambled into action. Less than four hours later, according to a popular local journal of the time, a new venue had been created high and dry inside the grand stables. The gala event unfolded in a forest of potted citrus trees imported from the Orangerie next door. The King, by all accounts, was enchanted.
Eighty plus years later, Lully’s spectacular tragédie lyrique was chosen to inaugurate the first permanent purpose-built theatre at Versailles, the Opéra Royal, with a command performance celebrating the marriage of the future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
With an enhanced re-staging of its sumptuous period production, Toronto’s remarkable early opera interpreter, Opera Atelier, brings history full circle. Later this spring, co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg will showcase their company’s gloriously gilded Persée in the very opera house where it thrilled the last of its Bourbon audiences over two centuries ago. The current offering now playing at the Elgin Theatre, dazzling when originally featured in 2000 then again in 2004, is brighter and more sparkling than ever. Set designer Gerard Gauci has at long last been able to realize the full scope of his visionary painted backdrops framed by faux Aubusson tapestries. From sweeping regal hall to sinister grotto to roaring seascape, the new scenic elements combined with Bonnie Beecher’s bold updated lighting give added emphasis to this exceptionally handsome Persée’s abundant theatrical values.
Drama, dance and music, punctuated by irreverent sight gags, form the classic foundations of Lully’s operatic spectacles. Loosely based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a quick nod to Corneille, trusted librettist Philippe Quinault presented the Italian-born composer with his take on the Persée myth, a boisterous tale of love, honour, betrayal and violence designed to appeal to both the best and worst in human nature.
Cassiope, Queen of Ethiopia, has angered Juno by daring to compare her beauty to that of the goddess. The fearsome Méduse has been dispatched as punishment. All who gaze upon her are turned to stone. Games are to be held in Juno’s honour in a desperate attempt to temper her fury. Cassiope and husband, King Céphée, await the arrival of Persée, semi-divine son of Jupiter, whose presence will hopefully attract the supreme god’s favour. The air crackles with tension at the mere mention of the illustrious youth’s name. Mérope, sister to the Queen, secretly loves Persée. Alas, Persée only has eyes for Andromède, the King’s daughter who worships him in return. Phinée, Andromède’s uncle and betrothed, is consumed by jealousy. Suddenly, heralds arrive with news that Juno will not be placated. Méduse continues to claim victims.
Céphée announces that Persée has consented to slay Méduse. If successful, Andromède shall be his bride. Phinée is enraged. Andromède and Mérope share their mutual feelings of love and fear for the dashing hero. After much foreshadowing, Persée enters. A troupe of mythological warriors presents him with enchanted weapons sent by sympathetic gods and goddesses.
Flanked by a pair of Gorgon travesti, Méduse relates the sorry tale of her transformation into a snake-haired monster by a resentful Athena who envied her once luscious tresses. Mercure, sent by Jupiter to aid his son, casts a sleeping spell on Méduse and her sisters. Persée decapitates Méduse and magically escapes, head in hand.
Juno strikes back, summoning Neptune to capture Andromède and bind her to a rock lashed by crashing waves. King Céphée and his subjects look on helplessly as a sea monster approaches. Persée flies to the rescue before the princess is devoured, dispatching the slavering creature with a well-aimed blow of his valiant sword.
Preparations are made for Persée and Andromède to wed. Mérope, heartbroken and despondent, impulsively allies herself with Phinée in a plot to kill the youth but soon repents of her treachery, warning Persée before Phinée’s assassins can strike. A battle rages. Mérope is killed by a stray arrow. Persée is all but overwhelmed until, holding aloft Méduse’s severed head, Phinée and his murderous cohorts are turned to stone.
Venus descends from the heavens proclaiming Juno has declared peace. Persée and Andromède are elevated to godly stature. The Ethiopians rejoice.
Like so many of Lully’s courtly operas, allegory tints character and story in Persée. By the composer’s own admission, Andromède stands in for Louis XIV’s mistress and wife-to-be, Madame de Maintenon, with the King himself represented as noble action hero. Méduse and her two vile henchwomen satirize the Dutch/Swedish/German alliance that plagued French mercantile ambitions throughout Louis’ reign. The might of the French throne and the virtue of its monarch were clearly being displayed, elegantly wrapped and packaged for all Europe to see.
Marshall Pynkoski as stage director excels at realizing the minutest details of seventeenth century French musical drama, posing his cast in a series of stylized Baroque tableaux. Singers sing, not so much to each other, as directly to the audience. It is a world of grace and refinement dripping with sensuality. But Pynkoski pushes beyond the merely decorative. Physicality and raw emotion are in ample supply. Trembling shoulders, clenched fists, pleading outstretched arms carry the action into a realm of universal humanity. Historically informed performance is not an absolute here.
Much the same is true of the production’s dynamic dancing. Passacaille, gigue, menuet, Opera Atelier’s extraordinary corps de ballet faithfully reproduces every flirty ankle turn and gorgeous extension characteristic of the period. Suddenly, enter the men and an explosive cycle of gravity-defying leaps lands Janette Lajeunesse Zing’s eclectic choreography squarely in the twenty-first century. Persée offers as many surprises for the eye as it does for the ear.
From principals to comprimari, singing is uniformly exquisite, personifying Lully’s focus on polish and precision. Show off high notes and frivolous phrasing is most definitely not on the Persée program.
In the key roles of Andromède and Mérope, Mireille Asselin and Peggy Kriha Dye sing rival characters thrust into a whirlpool of common anguish. Asselin with her lightness and clarity and Kriha Dye with her open technique colour their performances in subtle pastel tones, particularly appealing in ensemble engagement. The pair’s long shared recitative concluding with Mérope’s realization, Unissons nos regrets, le même amour nous lie (“Let us join together in sorrow, the same love binds us”), is a moment of tender, precarious bonding, touchingly intuitive. If Andromède is faithfulness and devotion, Mérope is pure recklessness and emotion. Persée’s two opposing sopranos movingly embody the contrast.
Mezzo Carla Huhtanen, with her emphatic, towering sound, is a haughty, strong-willed Cassiope. Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre, mix and matching his stage appearances, is both a troubled Céphee and an irresistibly vampish Méduse. Given the sheer exuberance of his slippery vocal characterization and sly posture, the reptilian sorceress is clearly Laquerre’s preferred persona. It is an utterly captivating performance, simultaneously farcical and menacing.
As Phinée, Persée’s resident force of darkness, dusky voiced baritone Vasil Garvanliev, presents us with that most dangerous of villains, a man with nothing to lose. His decidedly malicious outburst on learning of Andromède’s near certain death, Les dieux ont soin de nous vanger; le plaisir que je sens peine se cache (‘The gods are intent on seeking revenge; I can barely conceal the pleasure”) is deliciously evil.
Tenor Christopher Enns makes the most of his paradoxically limited turns as the opera’s namesake hero. Persée is not a big role but it demands an enormous investment of vocal and physical charisma. Enns has both assets to offer, thanks in no small measure to dance doubles Tyler Gledhill and Brett Vansickle.
Lawrence Williford’s Mercure, near haute-contre in timbre and range, is nothing short of astonishing. Meghan Lindsay is a seductive Venus. Stephen Hegedus and Curtis Sullivan offer fine supporting performances in a profusion of singing roles.
The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins makes a gloriously stirring contribution as Persée’s spirited chorus.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing on period instruments provides flawless accompaniment. Nimbly conducted by David Fallis, the lively 30-player ensemble executes a breath-taking succession of musical acrobatics commencing with the opera’s glowing overture, tracing its way along extended lines of sinewy accompanied recitative, powering through the opera’s maze of moody entr’actes. Lully placed great stock in his ability to evoke vivid sound pictures — storms, battles, infernal and pastoral scenes. Tafelmusik captures them all in high-definition.
Lully died in 1687, tragically and abruptly, scarcely five years after bringing Persée into the world. That his masterpiece has survived for so many centuries is testament to the genius of the Father of French Opera. Opera Atelier deserves high praise for helping to preserve his matchless legacy. This superb Persée is for all time.