Friday, April 1, 2016

Ideas and emoticons bring Rameau's Pygmalion to riotous life from Lyric Opera of Melbourne

In an ideas-rich and entertaining start to the year, Lyric Opera of Melbourne brings to riotous life Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1748 one-act relic of Baroque musical craftsmanship, Pygmalion. And yes, Pygmalion's lineage stretches back well beyond George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play which subsequently inspired the 1956 musical and the 1964 film, My Fair Lady.

Patrick MacDevitt as Pygmaliom (centre) with ensemble
In fact, Rameau and his librettist Ballot de Sovot's "acte de ballet" is based on a mythical story from Ovid's Metamorphoses concerning the sculptor Pygmalion (Patrick MacDevitt) who falls in love with his own statue. In this case we see it as a partly covered figure slumped in a bathtub in the vein of Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" (1793), propped up centre-stage to add a somewhat macabre tension in Pygmalion's studio while Cephise (Kimberly Coleman), the woman he has turned his back on, is inflamed with jealousy and disdain for his barbarous love. For underneath the covers, this statue invites surprise. Ovid's female statue and Rameau's role for soprano is here enlivened by the nimble and incisive countertenor voice of Josh Tomlinson. It's a man!

L'Amour (Sabrina Surace) turns up high on a mountain of blazing orange fabric in praise of Pygmalion's artistry. Once defrocked, her amiable graces, an ensemble of cross-pollinated costumed fashionistas parading in runway mode, are unleashed to complete the beatification process. Beauty never sounded so deep yet appears so shallow and the power of Love so fantastical yet so fragile. When transfigured, the statue declares, "My first desire is to please you", but in a modern, irreverent and clever twist, Pygmalion himself later appears rejected by his statue who walks away from him. Nothing, however, can quell the celebration of Love's power, as fleeting as it can be.

Josh Tomlinson as the Statue
The bulk of the vocal music falls upon Pygmalion and MacDevitt responds with a courageous and energetic performance. Nerves may have overtaken the voice on this preview night but MacDevitt's warm and attractive tenor impresses solidly in the middle range. I would've liked, however, to hear greater emotive shaping with greater attention to breathing and more confident, fluid ornamentation to really showcase Rameau's extraordinary writing.

Kimberly Coleman's dark creamy and focused soprano brings dramatic weight to Cephise and Sabrina Surace is brightly animated in voice as L'Armour and gives her character dazzling commoner-like status. Overall, the vocal standard though is yet to match Lyric Opera of Melbourne's 2014 successes in Copland's The Tender Land and Massenet's Werther.

A sense of beating, heightened theatricality persists throughout the 50-minute work in which director James Cutler gives the principal characters range and impact and amongst which the balletic thread is prominent. Choreographer Georgia Taylor fuses the drama with narrative thrust courtesy of her ensemble of six talented dancers, even though at times it feels like the self-absorbed, impromptu bodywork begins to suffocate the music as the dancers gasp, grunt and ooh-ah on their merry way in their wildly eclectic style.

Kimberly Coleman as Cephise
And how you wanted to bathe in Rameau's palette! Behind a black scrim curtain, at the theatre's 'sanctuary' end, 14 musicians on period instruments (in a first for Lyric Opera of Melbourne) warmed under the embracing command of artistic director Pat Miller. Seated at one of two harpsichords, the other manoeuvred stunningly into place from the stage's opposite end during the overture, Miller drew fine expression from his musicians on preview night, searching for perhaps a little more airiness in the lighter passages but completely in control of the rhythmically vibrant sections, none more so than at the score's jubilant finale.

Designer Rob Sowinski has put his theatrical wizardry to effective use with simplistic spatial enhancement. The usual raked standard seating for Chapel off Chapel's main church theatre is replaced by two long rows of seating either side of the side wall (much like a the choir of a cathedral) to form a voluminous performance space accommodating minimal roll-on, roll-off props. Lucy Wilkins's costumes delight with their flourishes of fractured stylistic influences and low ambient lighting holds the picture while the characters and their costumes pulse under radiant light.

And how could you not appreciate and smile with the emoticon surtitles interspersed with the text? I was waiting to see if any of the soloists were sneaking a peak for their dramatic cues, but there's so much happening on the stage that it could've gone unnoticed. That was another first for a company bent on having fun with opera.

Let this brief night's entertainment follow with dinner and drinks. A good rant about the performance will likely go with it.

Production photographs: Kris Washusen

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