PERSÉE by J.B. Lully, directed by Marshall Pynkoski, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, conducted by David Fallis, with Chris Enns, Mireille Asselin, Peggy Kriha Dye, Olivier Laquerre, Carla Huhtanen and Vasil Garvanliev. Presented by Opera Atelier at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge). Opens Saturday (April 26) and runs to May 3. $38-$166. 1-855-622-2787. See operaatelier.com. See listing.
Two years ago conductor David Fallis understood for a second what it must have been like to look through the eyes of France's Sun King, Louis XIV.
Two years ago Fallis conducted an Opera Atelier production of 18th-century composer J.B. Lully's Armide at the Royal Opera House at Versailles. After the performance, he walked out onto the balcony of the theatre, overlooking the palace's magnificent fountains and parks. It was just as the sun was setting, and he enjoyed the view that Louis had as he surveyed his gardens.
He might have the chance to return to that view in May, when Opera Atelier returns to Versailles with its production of Lully's Persée, following a run here in Toronto.
If you want a sense of the operas historical importance, the original Atelier production of Persée in 2000 was the first fully staged version since it inaugurated the Versailles opera house in 1770, helping to celebrate the wedding of the future King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Next month's run is the first time Persée has appeared on the Versailles stage since that first performance.
"It was a real thrill doing this repertoire in that venue," recalls Fallis, who regularly conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra for Opera Atelier performances. He's also part of the Toronto Consort. "I can't think of a more perfect location for this kind of repertoire, both in its acoustics and its look. The theatre is all wood, which resonates with a beautiful sound for a baroque orchestra.
"Since it seats only about 700, neither singers nor orchestra have to push their sound."
Most of the operas Fallis has conducted for Opera Atelier are Italian works, but he has a special fondness for the French pieces.
"One of the key difference in French baroque opera is spectacle; Louis XIV could afford to put on a big show in a way that many others couldn't. That spectacle includes an alternation between intimate scenes and big public choruses, as well as dances. No French opera of the period was complete without choreographed sections. In contrast, Italian opera tended to show off the voice by means of elaborate arias."
What's special about Persée?
"Lully and his librettist chose the Greek myth of the half-mortal, half-god Perseus, who slays the snake-headed Medusa and saves princess Andromeda from a sea monster. But what's striking is that they added another character, Merope, who also loves Perseus, thus putting a love triangle at the centre of the story.
"Merope might be the opera's most complex character, for she's caught between caring for the hero and knowing she probably won't get him in the end. We often meet her when she's wracked by anger, love and guilt."
Fallis knows that the audience will enjoy the Medusa character, whose head Perseus cuts off and uses to slay his own enemies at the end of the opera.
"She's a horrible creature, initially a beautiful woman punished by the gods for her pride and made ugly, with a head of snakes that turns anyone who sees it into stone. But Lully's set the role for a male voice, and her two sisters as well. They amount to drag parts sung by a bass, baritone and tenor. The music suggests that we're on a vamped-up runway, with the three sisters waggling their hips at the audience all the time. It's high camp comedy in the middle of a serious opera."
Fallis thinks of French baroque operas as sung plays rather than what most people consider opera.
"We're trying to make these works come alive with a drama that modern audiences can appreciate. I love the theatricality of it."
Working with Tafelmusik, which plays these scores on period instruments, is another thrill for Fallis.
"When I conduct Tafelmusik, I feel like a kid who's given his father's Maserati to drive for a week."