Baroque opera appears to be very much in favour at the moment, but Rameau has yet to register widely as a must-hear composer – despite the allure of his music. Thanks to Lyric Opera’s quest to present innovative performances of undeservedly neglected works, his one act opera, Pygmalion, has been given a new lease of life in an imaginative and entertaining production.
The story itself is most familiar to audiences via My Fair Lady and, to a lesser extent, George Bernard Shaw’s play that forms the basis of the Lerner and Loewe musical theatre version. Ovid’s rendition of the myth is a timeless story that continues to resonate and generate unexpected links to contemporary experience. In this production, director James Cutler and his creative team created some unexpected connections that might have jarred had they not been part of such a well thought through concept by way of Rob Sowinski’s design and integrated reference points.
The performance space of Chapel off Chapel has been enlarged to accommodate greater breadth of action and dance sequences that would have been compromised by the usual theatre layout. The audience viewed the action from two tiered rows along the larger sides of the space, providing close proximity to the cast and a clear view of the surtitles with their accompanying emoji and simple, stylised images that commented on the unfolding drama. This setup also enabled the six ensemble members and principal singers to make direct eye contact with the audience from time to time, establishing intimacy and involvement at a more personal level. Again, this was in the context of a stylised form of presentation.
One of the most challenging aspects of this kind of opera for any director is the amount of ballet music. While there was a nod to baroque gesture, Georgia Taylor’s choreography wisely focused on the spirit of the music and opportunities to emphasise comic elements. As somebody who generally finds the dance element of operatic productions disappointing, this reviewer was very pleasantly surprised as to how well the ensemble was deployed. Lucy Wilkins’ colourfully flamboyant costumes were also a huge asset in lifting the dynamic.
Although the members of the ensemble came with varying degrees of expertise in dance and voice, their strengths were used to best advantage, with a core of four dancers being featured in the more technically difficult sequences. David Siriani made an effective Ensemble and Dance Captain and Jessica Harris impressed with her contribution to the small number of vocal ensembles. Overall, the dominant mood was one of rambunctious vitality.
As Pygmalion himself, tenor Patrick MacDevitt gave a very creditable account of this demanding role; even at baroque pitch the high tessitura poses problems. By using falsetto very sparingly MacDevitt negotiated a couple of the more extreme moments successfully, but florid passages, such as in Pygmalion’s final aria, required more precision. Since this performance was a preview given several days before the opening, even greater ease is sure to be found as the season progresses. This will also be true of Sabrina Surace as L’Amour and Josh Tomlinson as Pygmalion’s Statue. Surace is a committed, dynamic performer with a clear voice and is absolute mistress of the disdainful glance. Tomlinson has an appealing counter-tenor and acted with appropriate (sometimes quite touching) dignity while still contributing to the comic spirit. In the small role of Pygmalion’s companion, Cephise, Kimberley Coleman was a finished product, making the most of her part with an assured presence and lovely vocal quality.
Placed at one end of the space, the small orchestral ensemble of period instruments responded with lively efficiency to Pat Miller’s skillful direction from one of the two harpsichords.
This is a production well worth going out of your way to see. Not only is it of a rarely performed masterpiece by a great composer, it is an interpretation of uncommon ingenuity that retains respect for the original. In addition, it combines the merits of being thought provoking and highly entertaining.
Pygmalion is at Chapel off Chapel until April 9. For tickets and information, contact Lyric Opera of Melbourne.
The image is from the current production, and was taken by Kris Washusen.