The Canadian company Opera Atelier is dedicated to reproducing Baroque operas as they would have been enjoyed in that period. Actéon was composed in 1684, during the reign of Louis XIV, and under the influence of his morganatic second wife, Madame de Maintenon, a stern, devout Catholic. It tells the story of Actéon, a Theban prince who is a hunter and a devout worshiper of Diana. He sees the goddess naked, bathing with her nymphs. She, enraged, transforms him into a stag, who is hunted and devoured by his own dogs. The message is one of temperance: passion and lust will only lead to ruin. It is an opera in six scenes, with plenty of dances by the nymphs and the hunters.

Edward Tracz (Actéon) © Bruce Zinger
Edward Tracz (Actéon)
© Bruce Zinger

Pigmalion came later, in 1748, in a completely different era. Louis XV was reigning, and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was a bonne vivante who enjoyed life and all its pleasures. This little rococo act de ballet celebrates the power and the triumph of love. The sculptor Pigmalion falls in love with a statue he created and neglects his fiancée, Céphise. Venus gives life to the statue, Galatea, and they live happily ever after. The Graces descend from the heavens to teach Galatea to dance, and Rameau wrote one of his best dance suites, including the typical court dances Sarabande, Gavotte and Menuet.

Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg’s dances present the style of the times; they are based on emphatic poses of the arms and hands, gracious leaps and perfect positioning of dainty feet, in contrast to the athletic gestures we are used to in 19th-century ballet. The ballerinas are in long gowns, the men in tight stockings, their movements symmetrical and, after a while, predictable. This rigid style is far from our modern sensibilities. Without an understanding of the aesthetics of the period, the poised dances can seem boring and corny, like a children’s ballet. When dancer Edward Tracz came on stage almost naked, crowned with golden antlers as the deer Actéon, the relief and the engagement from the audience were palpable as he leapt with “modern” freedom and abandon.

<i>Pigmalion</i> © Bruce Zinger
Pigmalion
© Bruce Zinger

The scenery comprised painted backdrops by Gerard Gauci in a style reminiscent of the beginning of the 20th century: blue strips of fabric, moved by the dancers, to represent water, and, in Pigmalion, a gigantic, cartoonish red heart.

The musical production was in the capable hands of David Fallis, who led the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in a most satisfying performance, particularly in the Rameau. The period orchestra exploited every dissonance Rameau had to offer with beautiful phrasing and dynamics. They adopted an unusually low tuning even for a period ensemble (lower than 400hz), which certainly helped some of the singers. The reading of the Charpentier score seemed a little more generic, but, overall, the performance of the orchestra was remarkable. Fallis chose to play a beautiful prelude by Charpentier before the overture of Actéon. Similarly, Pigmalion was preceded by a piece called Inception, a sort of violin partita played by its composer, Edwin Huizinga (one of the second violins), while dancer Tyler Gledhill performed a choreography where Eros gives life to the world.

Mireille Asselin (L'Amour) in <i>Pigmalion</i> © Bruce Zinger
Mireille Asselin (L'Amour) in Pigmalion
© Bruce Zinger

The Choer Marguerite Louise, prepared by Gaétan Jarry, was nothing short of excellent. They sang from a parterre box, and they gave an emotional, informed, detailed interpretation. The execution of the Baroque trills on the last note of the phrase, so hard to do in a chorus section, were uniformly perfect.

Colin Ainsworth sang the main roles in both operas. His tenor is high and bright, perhaps a bit too powerful and not high enough to qualify as a true haute-contre. In any case, he managed the difficulties of the parts with confidence; the coloratura was fast, if not exactly sparkling, and the high notes strong and bright. He showed great commitment to the roles and the style, displaying statuesque gestures and affected emotions like the other singers.

Colin Ainsworth (Acteon) in <i>Actéon</i> © Bruce Zinger
Colin Ainsworth (Acteon) in Actéon
© Bruce Zinger

The other singers had much smaller roles. Meghan Lindsay impressed as Aréthuze in Actéon and Galatée in Pigmalion; her soprano was full and supple, easy in the upper register, with a beautiful, appropriate vibrato. She was a perfect Galatée, embodying the dream of the newborn, innocent – yet sexy – woman, created by the artist to suit his desires. Mireille Asselin’s soprano was also admired in her roles as Diana in Actéon, and as Cupid in Pigmalion. Allyson McHardy gave life to the character of Juno in Actéon, the goddess who descends from the heavens to quash the hopes of Actéon’s friends, delivering his final death sentence. She also was Céphise in Pygmalion, displaying a deep, amber mezzo. 

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