The 1682 opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully centers on the Greek myth of the hero Perseus, and his battling Gorgons, sea monsters, and the machinations of a jealous rival to win the hand of the Princess Andromeda. First staged by Opera Atelier in 2000, the work has since gone on to be a company and audience favorite. On now through May 3rd at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, Persée is a creative, visually sumptuous romp that’s in keeping with the period-specific visual splendor Atelier is known for. With a beautiful blend of dance, action, singing, and music, along with fun design elements (a sea monster, Venus being lowered from a “cloud”), the world of 17th century opera comes alive in high, and highly entertaining fashion.

Christopher Enns (Persée) and the Sea Monster © Bruce Zinger
Christopher Enns (Persée) and the Sea Monster
© Bruce Zinger

The Greek mythology behind the opera’s libretto is a springboard for the exploration of envy and its destructive consequences; it is a humanized form of the revenge taken on Medusa by a jealous god. Gerard Gauci, the production’s set designer, writes in the program that Persée was “devised as an allegory of the power and prestige of Louis XIV” though the Gorgon’s painted head on the set curtain, menacingly facing out at the audience, serves as a token, a reminder, and a challenge. Will envy destroy all the beauty in the world? Not if director (and Opera Atelier’s co-Artistic Director) Marshall Pynkoski has anything to say about it.

Persée rejoices in beauty at every turn, whether it’s in the sumptuous costumes of Dora Rust D’Eye and Michael Legouffe, Gauci’s artistic sets, or Bonnie Beecher’s creative lighting. Pynkoski has the piece move seamlessly from one narrative point to another, from the cavern of Méduse (easily the production’s most entertaining passage), to Persée’s battle with the sea monster (cute, and very entertaining). The opera perfectly balances ornate vocal passages, French Baroque dancing, and soaring choral and orchestral passages. Co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s beautifully expressive choreography adds poetry to simple scenes; the First Act scene of Vulcan forging Persée’s armor, for instance, is a beautiful example of the marriage between drama, dance, and character which Atelier so excels at. The clinking of hammers and the precise jumping and spinning movements, together with the scene’s shiny costuming, symmetrical blocking, and sculptural lighting, is beguiling, and makes one curious why such creativity isn’t applied to other, similar operatic scenes more often (heads up, future Il trovatore directors). Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conductor David Fallis leads the orchestra with a quiet intensity that probes the score’s inherent melodic qualities, as well as its dramatic intensity, offering a sublime experience that is just as much about listening as it is accompaniment.

Olivier Laquerre (Méduse) © Bruce Zinger
Olivier Laquerre (Méduse)
© Bruce Zinger

Certainly, there is much beautiful listening to be had. Canadian Opera Company Ensemble graduate Mireille Asselin, as the Princess, has a sugar-sweet soprano and a charmingly gentle presence that perfectly capture the young Andromède’s wide-eyed wonder, while tenor Christopher Enns brings a youthful exuberance to the title role; his voice easily navigates the challenges of Lully’s busy score, and he handles the opera’s comedic scenes with aplomb and obvious enjoyment. Baritone Vasil Garvanliev is a perfectly villainous Phinée, using expressive body language perfectly tempered to the Elgin’s deep stage, while soprano Peggy Kirha Dye, as Mérope, brings a tender humanity and depth to the spurned woman who loves the title character in vain and refuses falling into Phinée’s wicked pit of revenge. Bass-baritone (and longtime Atelier performer) Olivier LaQuerre does double duty as King Céphée, father of Andromède, and the fearsome (if hilarious and fabulously bewigged) Méduse, his commanding voice and playful stage presence rendering him an eminently watchable performer. The staging of the Medusa scene itself, with the two Gorgons (sung with bitchy intensity by tenor Aaron Ferguson and bass-bariton Curtis Sullivan), offers a whimsical visual fusion of Greek mythology and modern culture (the dance scenes in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert came to mind), with direct choreographic and postural references to classical imagery including Castor and Pollux and The Three Graces.

Mireille Asselin (Andromède) and Christopher Enns (Persée) © Bruce Zinger
Mireille Asselin (Andromède) and Christopher Enns (Persée)
© Bruce Zinger

The drama extends offstage as well, though in the best of ways. Pynkoski makes smart use of the side boxes in the gilded Elgin Theatre, where the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir are positioned along with occasional cast members. This placement gives a sense of both grandeur and intimacy to the proceedings, but also provides a gorgeous stereo effect. Because the Elgin has no pit, the orchestra, true to the company’s period-specific style, plays directly in front of the stage, which occasionally presents challenges in terms of the singers’ projection; sometimes they’re simply drowned out by the Baroque orchestra in front of the. At Saturday’s opening, the volume and richness of tone coming from the stage gradually increased as the opera progressed, so perhaps early projection issues were the result of first-night nerves.

No nerves, however, can obscure the sheer wondrous enjoyment that Persée brings. By the end, there’s a certain bright vividness that has crept from the fantastical realm into the human realm, thanks to Persée’s overcoming the challenges he’s faced in fighting monsters, both human and not. It isn’t just a brightness you see, but one you can feel. As the audience filed out of the Elgin Saturday night, one young father held his young, wide-eyed son by the hand. Favorite part? “The lady in the clouds at the end.” Opera Atelier: reaching across generations, in more ways than one.

****1