Tagged: Marshall Pynkoski

Review of Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea

Opera Atelier's Acis and Galatea
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay / Handel's Acis and Galatea

First, I have to admit that I came to Acis and Galatea last night with a clouded mind. Over the last month I’ve done a lot of thinking about performance tradition, the boundaries of style, and the question of who, precisely, owns the “meaning” of an opera (the correct answer, for my money, is “no one,” not even the composer, but there are many who believe otherwise). Acis and Galatea, like all Opera Atelier productions, is produced in a very specific and highly stylized way that attempts in some ways to evoke the performance conventions of the period in which it was composed.

Of course, “period accuracy” is a slippery goal and part of Opera Atelier’s genius lies in carefully choosing which aspects of Baroque and 18th century performance to preserve and which to dispense with. Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski nodded to this notion in his opening remarks, telling the audience that while they started out as a company “obsessed with period style”, that they’ve come to believe in the adage that “style is not the bull’s-eye; style is what you use to take aim.” I would like to hear more from him about how he sees his aims as having changed – where the bull’s-eye is now – and in what areas they’ve chosen to sacrifice period authenticity in favour of a different vision.

I can make guesses about this to some extent. Part of what makes Opera Atelier productions so visually unique – and what, perhaps, I love about them the most – is the very precise and stylized stage movements of the performers, meant to imitate the style of gestural acting characteristic of the Baroque. The singers pose as though for paintings, each arm movement and head tilt suggesting emotion while maximizing their beauty. And a commitment to visual beauty is always on display: not only in the prominence of ballet and the soft lighting but in the casting of young, slim, and attractive singers clothed in very revealing costumes. This last item pushes OA productions to the heights of sensual deliciousness while giving ammo to critics who sometimes dismiss them as lightweight and vulgar (the display of male beauty, in particular, seems to reliably ruffle feathers).

So, where does Acis and Galatea fit in to all this? I wouldn’t call it lightweight, but it is certainly light – light as a balloon that threatens every minute to blow away but always, to overwork the metaphor, bobs merrily along at the end of its string. All of the aforementioned OA hallmarks are present, meaning that the production is beautiful to look at and staged with deftness and intelligence. As I noted in an earlier DVD review, A&G isn’t always an easy work to like. While a lot of operas might be described as dramatically static, Acis and Galatea is static in the extreme. There are perhaps two or three actual plot events and they’re clustered near the end. The rest plays almost like a song cycle or collection of arias rather than a drama.

In this production the vast spaces are filled with dancing (much more prominent in the first half than the second) and comedy. The choice to play Polyphemus for laughs is an interesting one, and I’m not entirely sure that it works. While it does enliven the drama, it does wind up robbing the finale of some of its gravitas. Both director and tenor Lawrence Wiliford deserve kudos for making the character of Damon make sense as a participant in the drama, and all the actors on stage display a charming vulnerability.

In conclusion? Think of it as a series of tableaux, both musical and visual, and enjoy all the beauty on display. Any attempt to inject more drama into Acis and Galatea would have popped the balloon.

Acis And Galatea Final from Douglas Brown on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Globe and Mail:”The four singers were for the most part exemplary, headed by the consummately brilliant and nimble tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the Ariel-like Damon”

Toronto Star: “Saturday night’s opening performance of George Frideric Handel’s sweet pastoral Acis and Galatea merged excellent musicianship, fine stagecraft and a keen sense of movement.”

Mooney on Theatre: “This is the kind of opera that anyone could see and enjoy.”

Art & Culture Maven: “It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Baroque Opera to continue the company’s longstanding legacy.”

James Karas Reviews: “this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.”

A Sneak Peak at Acis and Galatea; or, YouTube commenters are (sometimes) prudes

Last summer I attended a performance of the American Ballet Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, and wound up sitting next to someone active in the dance world. My ticket was for standing room, but she plucked me from purgatory and gave me a spare ticket to a much better seat next to hers (“you look like a dance person”, was her explanation for picking me over the other standees). She seemed rather disappointed upon finding out I was an opera person instead of a dance person, and explained to me that she didn’t really enjoy going to the opera because the singers don’t move properly on stage.

Available on YouTube is some rehearsal footage of a scene from Opera Atelier’s upcoming production of Acis and Galatea. Thomas Macleay as Acis sings “Love in her eyes sits playing” to his Galatea while the voice of co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski is heard in the background giving him directions. Both of the company’s Artistic Directors come from the dance world, and the detailed attention to movement evident in this clip makes me wonder if they share my ticket benefactress’ frustration with conventional opera direction.

What caught my attention the most in this clip are the abundant gestures of physical affection. Acis and Galatea embrace, kiss, and caress each others’ face and hair during the aria. Many stage opera couples, though meant to be passionately in love, do little more than hold hands with the occasional side hug for duets. A singer playing Carmen might make a few theatrical gestures meant to signify lust, but these tend to be unconvincing (Don José typically just sits there). And if the love story is unconvincing, the opera often loses a lot of its steam.

Some, apparently, prefer things that way. I was surprised to find a mini-controversy in the comment thread for this clip, instigated by one Miss Cecchetti:

Oh yes, the breast-groping and french kissing is very baroque theatre isn’t it?

Mind you it surprises me seeing Pynkoski set this much physical contact on a male-female couple. He usually reserves that for the male-male couples, as in their production of Iphigenie.

This seems like sheer prudishness (not to mention blatant homophobia) to me – this scene, and what I recall from Iphigenie, would be rated PG at most. As for period accuracy, while my knowledge is admittedly spotty, the 18th-century plays I’ve encountered have generally been on the bawdy side and classical mythology is riddled with debauchery of all varieties.

I went googling around and dug up an old interview with Pynkoski wherein he talks about the importance of movement and emotion in his opera direction. I recommend reading it – it gives a lot of clues to why OA’s productions consistently seem so different from most opera I’ve seen, and how they manage to seem vivid and new despite the period stylings. It opens up a very different path for Making Opera Relevant, one that I think is just as viable as putting everyone in leather trenchcoats.