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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 10 (2004) No. 1

The Opera Atelier Performance (Toronto, 2000): The Spirit of Lully on the Modern Stage

Antonia L. Banducci*

Jean-Baptiste Lully. Persée. Opera Atelier, Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Zingg. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, with members of Le Concert Spirituel, guest conductor Hervé Niquet. Toronto, October 26, 28, and 29, November 2 and 4, 2000.

[A revival of this production occurred on April 23, 24, 28, 30, and May 1 and 2, 2004. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recorded it for a television documentary, which was to be filmed in Versailles as well as Toronto. Three of the strongest original soloists returned: Alain Coulombe, Monica Whicher, and Curtis Sullivan. They were joined by new cast members.—Ed.]

1. Introduction

2. Tragédie en musique: The Genre Revisited

3. The Production’s Modern Operatic Accouterments

4. Omissions in This Production

5. The Dancing

6. The Orchestra

7. Musical Interpretation and Interpretive Gesture

8. Sets, Machines, and a Monster

9. The Chorus and Its Placement

10. Staging: Baroque Convention and Directorial Innovation

11. Conclusion


Subsequent Communications

1. Introduction**

1.1 When the Paris Opéra revived Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault’s Persée in 1737, fifty-five years after its premiere, a critic for Le Mercure de France offered this observation:

The public received this tragedy with an inexpressible satisfaction. Each day this work’s brilliant and continued success makes obvious, even to those most likely to let themselves be swept away by novelty’s charm, that what is truly beautiful never ages and sooner or later will regain its rights.1

The sold-out final performances of Opera Atelier’s production of Persée in Toronto certainly corroborated this eighteenth-century perspective. Persée indisputably “regained its rights” in this elaborately staged production, which involved over eighty singers, dancers and instrumentalists. The performances owed their success to the fine collaborative efforts of co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski (director) and Jeannette Zingg (choreographer), guest conductor Hervé Niquet, fifteen soloists, the Atelier Ballet, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (joined by continuo players from Niquet’s ensemble, Le Concert Spirituel), and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir; along with opulent period costumes by Dora Rust-D’Eye, Baroque-inspired sets by Gerard Gauci, and lighting by Kevin Fraser.

1.2 As Pynkoski explained, Opera Atelier set as its goal “an historically informed performance that will nonetheless appeal to contemporary audiences.”2 Indeed, elements of French Baroque performance practice informed the music and all aspects of the staging, including costumes, sets, machines, gestures, and choreography. This production has thus offered a rare opportunity to grapple with some of the performance practice issues raised by such works, known as tragédies en musique, and by Lully’s Persée in particular. The following discussion will not attempt to recreate the performances for those who missed this wonderful opportunity to experience live the many delights of French Baroque opera.3 Instead, after a brief introduction to the genre itself, I will offer my views on various aspects of the production that entailed directorial decisions. In the spirit of scholarly debate, I will concentrate on the production’s modern accouterments, the dancing, the orchestra and the musical interpretation, the sets and machines, and the staging.

2. Tragédie en musique: The Genre Revisited

2.1 To set the stage, let us briefly recall distinguishing characteristics of the genre. With the operas of Lully and Quinault and their successors in mind, the Chevalier de Jaucourt described the essential elements of a tragédie en musique in his “Opéra” article for Diderot’s Encyclopédie: these are works “that combine marvelous stage machinery, magnificent sets, harmonious music, sublime poetry, theatricality, and consistency of dramatic action, and that sustain interest over a period of five acts.”4 Curiously, this list omits one other defining element of the genre, the dances of the divertissements. Presumably Jaucourt’s omission stemmed from his notion that the ballet “most often had only an arbitrary and very distant connection” with the subject matter.5 Such an observation cannot, however, be applied to Persée (or to any opera by Lully), in which the dancers and choristers play an integral role in the drama.

2.2 To sustain the five-act opera, which was originally performed without interruption, required not only good singing but also good acting. Indeed, soloists at the Académie Royale de Musique (the formal name for the Paris Opéra) were known as “acteurs et actrices pour les roles.” Titon du Tillet’s enthusiastic description of Marie (“Marthe”) Le Rochois’s performance in Lully’s Armide, whose title role she premiered in 1686, provides some indication of the performer’s responsibilities:

Were we not all in ecstasy in act 5 scene ii of [Armide], to see her, dagger in hand, preparing to stab Renaud, asleep on a mossy bed? Rage animated her expression, love took possession of her heart; she swayed between the two, but at last gave way to pity and tenderness, and love reigned supreme. What attractive and convincing poses! What a range of emotions and expressions passed through her eyes and face during this 29-line monologue …6

Le Rochois also premiered the role of Mérope, the one major character that Quinault added to the Perseus myth as recounted by Ovid and Apollodorus. Mérope appears in sixteen scenes and has three monologue scenes, the only ones in the entire opera.

2.3 In Quinault’s libretto for Persée, Mérope (performed in this production by Monica Whicher) loves Persée (Rufus Müller), who loves and is loved by Andromède (Nathalie Paulin). Andromède, who is the daughter of Céphée (Mark Stone) and Cassiope (Laura Pudwell), the King and Queen of Ethiopia, is engaged to Phinée (Alain Coulombe). To further complicate the family drama, Phinée is Céphée’s brother and Mérope is Cassiope’s sister. Cassiope’s vanity has incurred the wrath of the goddess Juno, who sends Méduse (Michael Chioldi) to turn the populace to stone. With the help of Mercure (John Tessier), Persée slays Méduse. In retaliation, Juno has Andromède tied to a rock in the sea. Persée arrives in the nick of time to kill the sea monster that is threatening his beloved. Phinée then seeks vengeance for his loss of Andromède, but Persée staves off Phinée’s attack by turning the aggressors to stone with Méduse’s severed head. (Mérope has overcome her jealousy and warned Persée of Phinée’s impending attack and thus placed herself in harm’s way. A stray arrow kills her.) Vénus (Krisztina Szabó) announces that Juno is appeased, and all celebrate.

3. The Production’s Modern Operatic Accouterments

3.1 The Opera Atelier production incorporated several modern operatic accouterments. For example, an intermission occurred between Acts II and III, which seemed more a bow to convention than to necessity. The production employed modern lighting effects, which, although generally effective, were sometimes overly contrived in contrast to a candlelit Baroque stage. The most modern addition to the opera—supertitles produced by Gunta Dreifelds—were particularly appropriate for a genre characterized by recitative and little text repetition. Their well-timed projection and Peter Moes’s fine translation heightened their effectiveness. The use of supertitles theoretically eliminated the need for light by which to follow the libretto. Nevertheless, in contrast to the darkened house throughout Thursday night’s performance, up until Act IV in Saturday’s performance, the house lights were only partially dimmed. Indeed, prior to Wagner’s innovations at Bayreuth, theaters’ candlelit auditoriums allowed audience members to choose to regard the stage, the libretto (in the French Baroque theater often with the assistance of personal candles), or other members of the audience. Thus, I found Saturday night’s historically accurate and convivial ambiance most pleasing and, in fact, I missed it in the final acts.

4. Omissions in This Production

4.1 To the co-artistic directors’ credit, Persée remained intact with only two exceptions. This production omitted the opera’s prologue, the traditional panegyric to Louis XIV, and Act III, scene 4, in which the two remaining Gorgons try to kill an invisible Persée. The first omission has strong historical precedent. Although Persée kept its prologue through the opera’s revival in 1746–7, the Académie Royale de Musique routinely revived older operas without their prologues beginning in the 1750s. The need for additional personnel and stage machinery to accomplish the libretto’s somewhat daunting stage directions for Act III, scene 4, might have led to the second omission:

Chrysaor, Pegase, and several other terrible and bizarre looking monsters are formed from Méduse’s blood. Chrysaor and Pegase fly, several of the other monsters are likewise raised into the air, several others creep about, others run, and they all seek Persée who is hidden from their eyes because he is wearing Pluto’s helmet.7

In Lully’s time, a family of acrobats, the Allards, would have performed the antics in that scene.8

5. The Dancing

5.1 The Opera Atelier troupe might not have had acrobats, but they certainly had wonderful dancers. Although the choreography and stage movement of the dancers freely mixed French Baroque dance, classical ballet, and more modern idioms, Zingg and the artists of Atelier Ballet nonetheless artfully interpreted the various roles accorded to dancers in Persée and thereby highlighted the integral role dance plays in a tragédie en musique. As French Baroque dance scholars are acutely aware, to reconstruct Lully’s original divertissements is a challenging affair, given the paucity of evidence.9 Thus, I will limit my remarks here to a few observations relative to points made by Ken Pierce and Jennifer Thorp in “The Dances in Lully’s Persée.

5.2 Pierce and Thorp, following the terminology of the abbé Jean-Baptiste Dubos (1719), describe the dances in Persée as “ordinary” (having conventional steps and figures) or “imitative” (incorporating gesture and mime to represent a given character). Unfortunately, we have no extant imitative choreographies for Lully’s works or for their eighteenth-century revivals that might serve as points of reference. I nonetheless found the battle dances (V, 5) a bit too free-wheeling in character, even though they were carefully choreographed by Jennifer Parr and gracefully performed. The high kicks of the Infernal Divinities (II, 10) also seemed out of place. In contrast, Zingg’s group choreography for the passacaille, an “ordinary” dance in the final scene, beautifully presented one solution to a problem raised by Guillaume-Louis Pécour’s 1704 choreography for that dance. The notation provides for only two soloists, yet the libretto indicates that troupes of Céphée’s courtiers and of Ethiopian men and women are also on stage.10 In the Opera Atelier production, a solitary couple on stage began the passacaille. At the beginning of each new section of the music, in an additive, symmetrical progression, more couples joined those already on stage. This choreographic design effected a stately, visual crescendo that I found enthralling.

6. The Orchestra

6.1 As in the case of the Lullian divertissement, we have little knowledge of the size and composition of Lully’s opera orchestra. The earliest extant list of Paris Opéra orchestra members dates from 1704, well after Lully’s death (1687).11 To compare this list with that of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra nonetheless provides us with some notion of the historical precedent and its modern evocation. Both orchestras had eight wind players, but while the Académie musicians played more than one wind instrument (variously playing recorders, flutes, oboes, and bassoons), two recorder players, four oboists, and two bassoonists made up the Tafelmusik wind section. Tafelmusik covered the inner string parts with violas, using the same distribution found in the Académie orchestra: three hautes contres de violon, three tailles de violon, and two quintes de violon. The comparative number of violins and basses marks the biggest difference between the two orchestras: the Académie orchestra had eleven dessus de violon, ten basses de violon and two basses de viole; Tafelmusik had six violins, three cellos and one viola da gamba. That this smaller size proved entirely satisfactory might have been due to the production’s entirely modern sound system that provided “acoustical enhancement.”12 However, the occasional addition of tambourine and triangle to Lully’s original scoring seemed out of place.

6.2 Only once, in connection with Mercure’s signature music in Act III, scenes 1–2, did a noticeable balance problem between winds and strings occur. To announce Mercure’s arrival amongst the Gorgons, Lully scored the music for a specific instrumental trio: a recorder and a violin on each of two treble parts, plus continuo. The Gorgons remark on the “sweetness” and “novelty” of this music that takes them by surprise. Because Mercure intends to put the Gorgons to sleep and recorders were traditionally used in such “sommeil” scenes, the use of recorders presumably came as no surprise to Lully’s audience. The instrumental trio first alternates with the trio of Gorgons (accompanied only by continuo) and then accompanies Mercure in his confrontation with Méduse, who is accompanied by the full string orchestra. Despite the specificity of Lully’s scoring and the dramatic role that this music plays, I had to strain to hear the recorders in conjunction with the violins and thus the difference in tone color that should convey “sweetness” and “novelty” here.

6.3 Whereas Tafelmusik used a smaller number of strings than the Académie, it employed a larger number of theorbos and harpsichords: four and two respectively in Tafelmusik, two and one in the Académie. Unfortunately, the ensemble playing of the continuo was somewhat ragged, and all too often I found the continuo playing much too loud in both the recitatives and the continuo airs. For example, the overwhelming projection of the descending tetrachord ostinato bass in the continuo air “Mon Vainqueur, encore aujourd’hui” (I, 2) nearly obscured the dramatic and musical effect of Mérope’s assertion, “I would die of shame and rage if [Persée] knew how much I loved him” (“Je mourrois de honte et de rage / Si l’Ingrat connoissoit l’amour que j’ay pour luy”).

7. Musical Interpretation and Interpretive Gesture

7.1 For the most part, Niquet’s consistently lively and always steady tempos tastefully conveyed the opera’s internal momentum. Nevertheless, because so many of the opera’s most dramatic moments occur during passages of recitative, I would have preferred a more flexible and fluid interpretive approach, one dictated by dramatic content and not by a steady tempo. For example, Andromède and Persée’s first and only dialogue scene (II, 6) is set entirely in simple recitative. Persée proclaims his love. In reply, Andromède first declares her fidelity to Phinée and then admits her love for Persée. Short rests help to articulate the text—e.g., after “Mais” in the line, “Mais je mourray content, si vous vivez heureuse” (“But I will die content, if happily you live”). Still, a more flexible tempo, a slight internal broadening or quickening of the lines, even a tiny lengthening of the rests would give more musical and hence more dramatic quality to the recitative. Indeed, the moment when Andromède calls to Persée not to leave, and Persée slowly responds “What do I hear?” (“Qu’entends-je!”) had great dramatic impact. A quick check of the score shows that Lully indicated this marked change in tempo with “lentement.”13 One could argue that without such indications, no such changes are warranted elsewhere, but to my mind, the importance accorded to “sublime poetry” and expressive acting in French Baroque opera argues otherwise. For similar reasons, I was disappointed by the performance of Andromède’s emotionally charged recitative when she was threatened by the sea monster, “Gods, who destine me to such a cruel death” (“Dieux! qui me destinez une mort si cruelle”) (IV, 5); by the recitative passages of Phinée and Mérope’s argument over revenge (V, 1); and especially, given Mérope’s importance in the opera, by Céphée’s all too quick announcement of her death, also in recitative (V, 6).

7.2 Niquet did, however, take some directorial liberties for dramatic effect in his choice of continuo instruments. He often used the contrasting tone colors of theorbos and harpsichord to differentiate between characters in a dialogue, a differentiation nowhere indicated in the score. This approach worked most successfully when, for example, Niquet had only theorbos accompany Mérope’s first interruption of the argument between Phinée and Andromède in Act I, scene 4, where she softly pleads with them to resolve their differences. The more brilliant, metallic sound of the harpsichord returned to underscore Phinée’s angry response.14 A similar distinction between theorbo and harpsichord accompaniments worked less successfully in a dialogue between Mérope and Andromède (II, 5) because the two women (both of whom love and fear for Persée) express similar emotions and often sing together. Here the contrasting accompaniments seemed superfluous.

7.3 Nevertheless, the wonderful trio and duets in these scenes—sung by Coulombe (Phinée), Paulin (Andromède), and Whicher (Mérope)—were among the most beautifully performed small ensembles in the opera. Even from the balcony, one could easily understand the clearly articulated French of Coulombe and Whicher in particular. John Tessier as Mercure and Curtis Sullivan in various roles also gave especially memorable vocal performances.

7.4 All of the opera’s soloists used stylized gesture in conjunction with their singing. As our knowledge of Baroque gesture derives primarily from late eighteenth-century sources, we can only assume that such gestures, which came to be codified into a type of sign language, are appropriate for Lully.15 Again Coulombe and Whicher must be singled out for their convincing performances. Their selectively used and well-chosen gestures added another interpretive dimension to their fine acting and singing. Whicher’s performance of Mérope’s monologue in Act I, scene 3 was strikingly effective. Throughout this scene, she remained mostly in one spot, stage front, and held each gesture through a line or more of text. Whicher’s careful pacing of these illustrative movements underscored Mérope’s distress and brought it into sharper focus. In contrast, the art of semaphore signaling appeared to have inspired some of the singers, who changed from one gesture to another with distracting speed.

8. Sets, Machines, and a Monster

8.1 With only a few exceptions, Persée’s staging was truly spectacular, faithful to the original, and great fun. Because I had familiarized myself with the score and libretto beforehand and had remarked upon the sets, monsters, and machines involved, I could not help but cross my fingers as I entered the theater. To my great delight, and notwithstanding a problematic set design for Act IV, Gauci’s sets not only resembled but also acted like Baroque sets. The illusion of a series of flats painted to resemble a palace, a garden, and an interior courtyard changed in seconds from one to the other before our eyes during the entr’acte music. Mercure indeed descended from the heavens in a machine, as did Vénus in an albeit simplified “palace.”16 Having surreptitiously attached their seatbelts, Andromède and Persée, united at last, ascended with Vénus in the same. No machine propelled Persée through the air, however, when Mercure’s gift of winged sandals allowed the hero to fly. Rather, Persée simulated flight with marvelous high-flying grand jetés, a feat accomplished via a powerful dancing double. The dancer (not identified in the program, perhaps to avoid giving away the theatrical deceit) substituted for the singer so seamlessly that Persée’s ability to soar above the stage came as a complete surprise. I found this artfully contrived alternative to machinery, although modern in conception and execution, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the opera.

8.2 In contrast, and to my disappointment, a huge fanciful dragon played the sea serpent who surfaces in Act IV to devour Andromède. The “serpent” galumphed across the stage with a big grin on its face, looking entirely as though it had mistaken this production for The Magic Flute. As Pynkoski revealed in conversation, this dragon, a particular favorite of his, had indeed premiered in Opera Atelier’s 1991 production of that Mozart opera. A less-than-terrifying sea serpent in a 1747 court theater revival of Persée likewise elicited complaint:

It has to be admitted (and I have said as much to our whole province) that the Persées have improved themselves beyond recognition, and yet, by an incredible contrast, the monsters no longer arouse any interest. They have nothing to characterize them, nothing which in former times used to cause that delicious feeling we call goose flesh.

            People will reply, perhaps, that this decline to which I take exception is quite immaterial, that monsters no longer attract the attention of the public, who regard them as mere sleight of hand (tour de gobelet). Yet I maintain—and several ladies of [Bourgogne] agree with me—that one never sees monsters without experiencing emotion. What potential to stir up violent feelings in the spectator’s heart if the monsters were as they should be! But what kind of a monster is it which, with two paws about the size of my fan, tries to terrify an Andromeda who is prepared to laugh in its face? …

           … Every sea monster, for example, should be at least 18 feet long by 6 feet wide with an aperture in its head that could gobble up a twenty-year-old; how ridiculous a monster seems if it is reduced to snapping like a common guard dog. That is truly ignoble.17

Although a more terrifying marine monster certainly would have been truer to the original conception, the reuse of sets designed for other productions was standard procedure at the Paris Opéra during the Baroque period. Thus, the Magic Flute dragon’s reappearance as sea serpent—to the apparent delight of most in the modern audience—certainly falls within the bounds of historical precedent.

9. The Chorus and Its Placement

9.1 The Elgin Theater’s relatively small stage area dictated the placement of the chorus in side boxes to the immediate left and right front of the stage, almost at stage level. This location, however necessary, contrasts strongly with what scholars believe to be the normal disposition of Lully’s chorus—in an open oval or rectangle surrounding the stage.18 Although the choristers’ fine ensemble contributed to the production’s overall musical quality, that they were in black modern concert—not period—dress, “off-stage,” and mostly hidden from view undercuts the important dramatic role that the chorus plays in Persée and French Baroque operas in general. Elsewhere in this issue, Lois Rosow (“Lully’s Musical Architecture,” sections 5–6) has described the manner in which the chorus and dance troupe represent a single group of collective characters. Because one’s visual perception of bodies on stage—singing bodies in alternation with dancing bodies—fuses the two groups into that collective representation, this production’s disembodied chorus sacrifices this important principle. The chorus’s off-stage location poses a different problem when the chorus is split into two opposing collective groups. For example, in Act IV, Quinault and Lully have the chorus give voice in alternation to terrifying Tritons and the terrified Ethiopian populace. In two wonderfully intricate double choruses (the first including interjections from the opera’s principals), Tritons and Ethiopians sing quickly alternating passages. One can easily picture the musical and dramatic excitement that a literally divided chorus would provide, especially in conjunction with their center-stage body doubles from the dance troupe. To communicate this division from the side boxes, the Opera Atelier’s Tritons sang with high, nasal voices, sounding more like chipmunks than terrifying sea creatures. Perhaps color-coded supertitles would have better accomplished this distinction.

10. Staging: Baroque Convention and Directorial Innovation

10.1 Pynkoski, in contrast to some stage directors who imagine that constant, active stage movement is required to captivate modern audiences, followed what we know of the Baroque model. He generally and very successfully employed static, frontal staging in which main characters sing to the audience and not to each other.19 Even in their intense love scene (II, 6), described above, Andromède and Persée, stage front, sang to the audience and thus directly engaged us in their plight. The ensemble supplication for Persée’s safety (II, 3), by Céphée, Mérope, and Cassiope, also worked particularly well in this regard.

10.2 However, several of Pynkoski’s staging decisions did not follow the score. Curiously, the director brought Persée and Andromède on stage for the opening scene. Both stood silently as the dialogue among Céphée, Cassiope, and Mérope introduced the drama to follow. Perhaps a desire to give more visual symmetry to the opera or to provide more initial spectacle inspired this decision. In fact, neither score nor libretto calls for Persée’s appearance on stage until Act II, scene 6.20 (Although the title character appears in a total of eleven scenes, he sings in only six of them; he has far fewer lines than the other main characters, even fewer than Mercure.) Similarly, Pynkoski chose to bring Persée, Andromède, and her parents on stage for the first part of Act IV’s opening scene and to have them exit shortly thereafter. However, the scene’s rubrics call only for a troupe of Ethiopians, who exhort each other to celebrate Persée’s victory over Méduse, and for Phinée and Mérope, who privately express their jealousy. Since the chorus is off-stage in this production, Phinée’s exclamation, “Persée is back and all run to honor him” (“Persée est de retour, chacun court l’honnorer”), might have inspired the director to bring Persée on stage. If both Persée and the chorus had been on stage together, then the Ethiopians’ exhortation, “Let us all run to honor the vanquisher of Méduse” (“Courons, courons tous admirer / Le Vainqueur de Méduse”), would have made little sense.

10.3 Pynkoski drastically altered the staging of Andromède’s encounter with Mérope in Act II when he brought the two women on stage together at the beginning of scene 4. According to the published score, Mérope is alone on stage in this scene, in which she admits her love for Persée and worries that he will perish.21 The score’s rubrics for scene 5 signal Andromède’s subsequent appearance. A three-measure prelude for continuo alone, which links scene 4 to scene 5, provides her entrance music. Its chromatically descending bass line, during which the tonality shifts from A minor to E minor, musically sketches a “distracted” (interdite), uncertain, and “profoundly meditating” (révant) Andromède.22 A long, agitated prelude for five-part strings then introduces Andromède’s anguished reflections on the power of Persée’s love for her. Mérope, eavesdropping on her rival, acknowledges in an aside (the libretto directs her to sing “à part”) that she and Andromède are similarly troubled. Still “profoundly meditating” and unaware of Mérope’s presence, Andromède admits her love for Persée. Only then does Mérope confront her rival directly: “Ah! you love Persée.” Because Pynkoski directed both women to enter during scene 4’s opening ritournelle, his staging obscured the musical and dramatic subtleties of these scenes. Even as Mérope openly admits her love for Persée, the rivals take no notice of each other until the beginning of scene 5, when they circle each other about the stage during the five-part prelude. Hence, the musical identification of the bass prelude with Andromède is lost; and so is the dramatic conception of a distracted, profoundly meditating Andromède, who can reveal her deepest feelings because she believes that she is alone. [These scenes were much more effectively staged in 2004. Andromède entered during the bass prelude. She and Mérope bowed to each other coldly as Mérope retreated to the back of the stage, where she observed Andromède’s anguish from a distance.—Ed.]

10.4 Certainly the director’s most controversial interpretive decision was to let baritone Michael Chioldi play Méduse to the hilt as a drag queen on a “bad hair day.” (The fact that the part is written for a male voice indicates nothing about the intended interpretation: Lully followed the convention of using male singers to represent grotesque females, whether tragic or comic.) As Buford Norman has pointed out, Méduse can be read in two ways: as a tragic figure or as a parody of one. Having chosen the latter option, Pynkoski saw this scene as a “palette cleanser that allowed the audience to relax.” He disclosed that some gay men found Chioldi’s interpretation offensive, but that as gay men neither he nor Chioldi did.23 Comic elements disappeared from Lully and Quinault’s tragédies en musique well before they wrote Persée. Pynkoski’s decision thus certainly stemmed from his desire to entertain a modern audience, one that he knew. Interestingly enough, Chioldi and his two foot-stomping Gorgon side-kicks evoked only some slightly nervous laughter on Thursday evening. Sustained laughter and applause rewarded them on Saturday evening.

10.5 The most challenging set and staging requirements occur in Act IV. These include a raging storm and a storm-tossed sea, Tritons and Nereides who rise from the water to terrify the Ethiopian populace, Andromède tied to a rock and threatened by a sea monster, and her last-minute rescue by Persée, who arrives flying through the air to slay the monster. Quinault’s libretto provides the stage directions.24 When Act IV begins, “the stage represents the sea and a seashore bordered with rocks.” A chorus of Ethiopians celebrates Persée’s victory over Méduse, and then exits. Phinée and Mérope remain on stage; they express the anger, jealousy, and misery that their unrequited love has provoked. A rising storm—“The sea grows angry, the waves rise and spread on the shore”—interrupts their dialogue. The storm spills over into their subsequent duet, wherein Phinée and Mérope, accompanied by an undulating bass line in quick running eighth notes, address the sea directly: “Hearts jealous and in love are one hundred times more troubled than you” (“Les cœurs amoureux et jaloux / Sont cent fois plus troublez que vous”). A group of Ethiopians appears, lamenting that Tritons have captured Andromède and that they plan to offer her to a sea monster. The Ethiopians then “place themselves on the rocks that border the shore.” As Phinée and Mérope exit, Cassiope and Céphée enter. “On the shore,” they anguish over the news. Then “Tritons and Nereides appear in the sea.” They “surround Andromède and attach her to a rock.” After her royal parents and a chorus of Ethiopians vainly appeal to the gods, Andromède bemoans her dashed hopes and cruel fate. Then “the monster appears.” A chorus of Tritons encourages the mortals’ terrified response, only to be interrupted by Persée’s winged arrival. As the rival choruses sing opposing entreaties, Persée slays the monster. “The sea becomes calm, the waves subside and draw back.” The Tritons and Nereides descend into the sea. Persée frees Andromède, and they join her parents, sailors and their wives, and the Ethiopians, who “descend from the rocks and demonstrate their joy by singing and dancing,” to conclude the act.

10.6 The apparent exigencies of the theatrical space, financial constraints, and directorial decisions in the Opera Atelier production compromised the specific set and stage directions in this act and thereby weakened its musico-dramatic impact. This production’s Act IV opened on a courtyard with columns and an interior perspective, with no sea in sight. I had expected a moving sea, created with revolving drums or with flats representing waves that moved alternately from side to side. The simile in Phinée and Mérope’s duet, where they identify their own emotional agitation with the storm, would have made much more dramatic and musical sense if they and the audience had had the sea’s agitated waves before them. Later, as the trio of Ethiopians who bewail Andromède’s fate sang from a second-level box, a scrim dropped at the front of the stage, which permitted a change of setting from the courtyard to a still unsatisfactory sea. When the scrim lifted, Andromède appeared, chained to a large rock, and three sea creatures “swam” between flat, stationary panels. From the second-level boxes, Céphée (stage right) and Cassiope (stage left) responded to this “cruelty,” together and in alternation. The decision to chain Andromède earlier than directed in the libretto worked in this case because her parents responded not to rumor but to their daughter herself, chained before their very eyes. But the audience nonetheless lost the effect of the waves’ continuous movement that, in the original staging, visually communicates the omnipresence and importance of the sea. Its agitation underscores Andromède’s terror and Neptune’s fury as embodied in the sea serpent. It is only fair to mention that when asked what more he would have done with unlimited funds, Pynkoski said he would have had more side flats (to provide greater perspective) and a water machine. For the reasons I have given here, I would have preferred that the production modify some of the wonderfully elaborate costumes in favor of the latter device.

10.7 The libretto indicates that when the waves’ movement ceases, the Ethiopians come down from the rocks and the celebration begins. But in the Opera Atelier production, a curtain was lowered at this point, and the scene changed to the palace—the setting for Act V—where the celebration took place. Because stage business continued without interruption throughout the ensuing entr’acte—Mérope sobbed stage-left, courtiers in couples crisscrossed the stage, Phinée’s silhouette appeared then disappeared behind a curtain—there was no structural break: the divertissement that should end Act IV appeared instead to begin Act V. The misplaced scene change deprived Act IV of both its divertissement, which in this act serves as a necessary peroration after an exciting climax, and its symmetry: it both begins and ends with choral celebrations. This directorial decision thus obscured the carefully constructed architecture of Act IV and the autonomy of the act as a discrete structural unit.25

10.8 Moreover, the physical and symbolic import of the sea is central to the Act IV divertissement. As the libretto indicates, sailors and their wives join in the celebration. They know well and have survived the sea’s anger and power. The metaphorical text of the air that begins the celebration, sung by an Ethiopian “surrounded by dancing sailors,” recalls the connection made earlier by Phinée and Mérope between the storm and their jealousy. The air also underscores the importance of a visual representation of the tempest, lost to us in this production:

Nôtre espoir alloit faire naufrage, Nous goûtons enfin un heureux sort. Quel bonheur d’échaper à l’orage! Quel plaisir d’en retracer l’image Quand on est au port!

[Our hope was going to be shipwrecked; we finally savor a happy fate. What joy to escape the storm! What pleasure to recall its image when one is safely at port!]

10.9 The original stage directions to the choruses in this act also warrant some consideration. As discussed above, the placement of the choral singers in side boxes deprived the Opera Atelier audience of the full dramatic impact of Act IV’s two double choruses, terrified Ethiopians alternating with terrifying Tritons. Nonetheless, the use of side boxes and the displacement of the divertissement to the palace made it possible to ignore the libretto’s somewhat perplexing three-fold directions to the crowd of Ethiopians, which presumably included both singers and dancers. The Ethiopians place themselves on the rocks in scene 3; they remain on the rocks in scene 4; they descend from the rocks in scene 7. Given the disposition of the chorus in an open oval or rectangle surrounding the stage, the required wave machine, and the series of flats used to accomplish the extremely quick scene changes, I find it hard to imagine how such maneuvers originally took place. The illustration that accompanies a score of Persée published in 1722 does show a small crowd on low rocks in the left front of the scene as Persée descends from the sky to attack a fire breathing sea-monster. But Andromède awaits her rescue with her well-endowed, naked body in full view, a depiction that somewhat undermines the engraving’s credibility as an actual set design.26 Given that many in Lully’s audiences read the libretto prior to or during a performance, perhaps the rock-climbing activities took place mainly in the audience’s imagination as the Ethiopians established themselves next to realistically painted flats. Or, as a description of a set for the 1687 production of Lully’s and Collasses’s Achille et Polixène suggests, two sets of flats could have been employed: one painted with likenesses of Ethiopians, the other—with slots cut into the flats—painted with rock formations. At the beginning of the divertissement, the painted Ethiopians could have moved off the cliffs via the slots while the actual chorus moved into the stage area.27

11. Conclusion

11.1 I hope that my remarks on this production—both critical and complimentary—have made clear my unqualified gratitude for both the wonderful aesthetic experience and the attendant occasions for scholarly inquiry and friendly debate that Opera Atelier’s production of Persée has so amply afforded. In retrospect, it seems curious that, like most of Lully’s operas, Persée has heretofore received relatively little concentrated scholarly attention. Thus, we cannot help but admire Pynkoski’s and Zingg’s artistic intuition, which led them to recognize the “Medusa scene” as “an exceptional piece of musical theatre” and to stage that scene in 1996, as principal guest instructors at the Centre du Musique Baroque de Versailles.28 That they then determined to produce the work in its entirety and found the resources to do so is even more admirable. It is to their credit and to the credit of all who participated in this production that Persée truly “regained its rights” in the year 2000, not only in the operatic community, but in the scholarly community as well.


* Antonia L. Banducci (abanducc@du.edu), Associate Professor of Music History at the Lamont School of Music, University of Denver, specializes in French Baroque opera. She has published in Early Music and Eighteenth-Century Music, written liner notes for Harmonia Mundi, and written the Introduction for a facsimile edition of André Campra’s Tancrède (New York: Pendragon Press, in press).

** I wish to thank Victoria Hayne, Ginni Ishimatsu and Marilyn Lucas for their useful comments on early drafts of this article, and Lois Rosow for her felicitous editorial suggestions.

1 “Cette Tragédie fut reçûë du Publique avec une satisfaction inexprimable; le succès éclatant et continu de cette Pièce fait voir tous les jours à ceux même qui se sont le plus laissé entraîner au charme de la nouveauté, que ce qui est veritablement beau ne vieillit jamais, et rentre tôt ou tard dans ses droits.” Mercure de France (March 1737; reprint, Geneva, Slatkine, 1969), 562. Persée had its premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1682 and was revived there in 1687, 1703, 1710, 1722, 1737, and 1746; and at Versailles in 1770 with many alterations, to celebrate the wedding of the Dauphin (Louis XVI) with Marie Antoinette. Alfred Loewenberg, Annals of Opera 1597–1940, 3rd ed. (Totowa, N.J.: Roman and Littlefield, 1978), 72, also lists a revival in 1765, with additions by B. de Bury and P. M. Berton, but I can find no evidence to support this

2 Pynkoski made this statement and others cited below in an informal talk, “From Seventeenth-Century Page to Twenty-First-Century Stage: Persée at Opera Atelier,” during a session on Persée sponsored by the Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relationships, at the conference “Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections,” November 4, 2000. Both the program booklet (The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre edition of Performance magazine, September–November 2000) and Opera Atelier’s website surveyed these goals, the genesis of the project, and the types of resources used.

3 Of the five performances, I was able to attend the last two, November 2 and 4, 2000. Unfortunately, no commercial audio or video recording of the production was issued. CBC Radio Two (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) recorded a performance for broadcast on November 3, 2001.

4 “… dans lesquels se trouvent tout-à-la-fois réunis les merveilleux des machines, la magnificence des décorations, l’harmonie de la musique, le sublime de la poésie, la conduite du théâtre, la régularité de l’action, et l’intérêt soutenu pendant cinq actes.” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers, ed. Denis Diderot (Paris, 1751–65; reprint, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Frommann, 1966), s.v. “Opéra” (by [Chevalier] d[e] J[aucourt]).

5 “… [les ballets] n’ont souvent qu’un rapport arbitraire & très-éloingné.…” Encyclopédie, s.v. “Opéra.”

6 Évrard Titon du Tillet, Le Parnasse françois (Paris: J.-B. Coignard fils, 1732; supplement 1743), 791–2, trans. Caroline Wood and Graham Sadler, French Baroque Opera: a Reader (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 132.

7 “Chrysaor, Pegase, et plusieurs autres Monstres de figure bizarre & terrible, se forment du sang de Méduse. Chrysaor et Pegase volent, quelques-uns des autres Monstres s’élevent aussi dans l’air, quelques autres rampant, les autres courent, et tous cherchent Persée qui est caché à leurs yeux par la vertue de Casque de Pluton qu’il a sur la tête.” This and all subsequent quotations from Persée have been taken from the transcription of Philippe Quinault’s libretto in Recueil général des opéra, représentez par l’Académie Royale de Musique depuis son établissement, vol. 2 (Paris: Christophe Ballard, 1703; reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1971), [298]–386.

8 I wish to thank Rebecca Harris-Warrick for this information.

9 For a fascinating discussion of this problematic topic along with some preliminary conclusions regarding the principles of a divertissement’s construction and execution, see Rebecca Harris-Warrick, “Recovering the Lullian Divertissement,” in Dance and Music in French Baroque Theatre: Sources and Interpretations, ed. Sarah McCleave, Study Texts 3 (King’s College London: Institute of Advanced Musical Studies, 1998), 55–80.

10 The problem of interpreting Pécour’s choreography for the passacaille is considered at length by Pierce and Thorp. As Harris-Warrick notes, all extant choreographies from this period are for soloists and thus present a similar problem (“Recovering the Lullian Divertissement,” 55).

11 See Jérome de La Gorce, “L’Académie Royale de Musique en 1704, d’après des documents inédits conservés dans les archives notariales,” Revue de Musicologie 65 (1979): 178–80. For a summary of our state of knowledge regarding Lully’s orchestral personnel and an attempt to identify the instruments accompanying an outdoor performance of Alceste in 1674, see Neal Zaslaw, “Lully’s Orchestra,” in Jean-Baptiste Lully: actes du colloque Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Heidelberg 1987, eds. Jérôme de La Gorce and Herbert Schneider, Neue Heidelberger Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 18 (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1990), 539–79.

12 In his review for the Toronto Sun (October 28, 2000), John Coulbourn mentioned problems with the “acoustical enhancement” system on opening night.

13 Jean-Baptiste Lully, Persée, tragédie mise en musique (Paris: Christophe Ballard, 1682; reprint, New York: Broude International Editions, 1998), 100.

14 For a poetic analysis of this scene and of this interruption in particular, see Buford Norman, “Rivalry and Collaboration,” especially paragraphs 5.3–5 and audio 1. For a musical analysis of the same passage, see Gregory Proctor, “A Schenkerian Look at Lully,” especially section 4.

15 The most comprehensive work on Baroque gesture is Dene Barnett, The Art of Gesture: The Practices and Principles of Eighteenth-Century Acting (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1987).

16 For Jean Berain’s seventeenth-century design of the very large and elaborate gloire in which Vénus descends, see Jérôme de La Gorce, Berain: Dessinateur du Roi Soleil (Paris: Editions Herscher, 1986), 83; Danseurs et ballet de l’Opéra de Paris depuis 1671 (Paris: Archives Nationales, 1988), exhibition catalog, 35; or Lois Rosow, “Making Connections: Thoughts on Lully’s Entr’actes,” Early Music 21 (1993): 231.

17 “Lettre sur les Monstres, addressée aux Auteurs du Mercure par une Dame de qualité de Bourgogne,” Mercure de France (April 1747; reprint, Geneva, Slatkine, 1969), 103–4, trans. Wood and Sadler, French Baroque Opera, 125.

18 See Rebecca Harris-Warrick, “Recovering the Lullian Divertissement,” 56–7.

19 In strong contrast to Pynkoski’s approach, a crazed Alcina, superbly sung by Sylvia McNair, literally rolled all over the stage in the 1987 Opera Theater St. Louis production of Handel’s Alcina, directed by Stephen Wadsworth. For a discussion of French Baroque staging procedures dating from the mid-eighteenth century, see Antonia L. Banducci, “Staging a Tragédie en musique: A 1748 Promptbook of Campra’s Tancrède,” Early Music 21 (1993): 180–90, and idem, “Staging and Its Dramatic Effect in French Baroque Opera: Evidence from Prompt Notes,” Eighteenth-Century Music 1 (2004): 5–28.

20 Benoît Bolduc’s “Research Notes” in the Opera Atelier program booklet (p. xiv) add to this confusion: “The knot of the plot had to be resolved from within, hence the obligation for Quinault to introduce the character of Perseus at the beginning of the play.”

21 Lully, Persée, 80. The scene in the score is misnumbered “Scene III.”

22 Mérope observes that she is “interdite”; rubrics in the libretto indicate that she is “révant.” I have employed a seventeenth-century definition of “rêver” from Dictionnaire du français classique du XVIIe siècle (Paris: Larousse, 1992). For other examples of bass preludes in Persée that musically sketch an entering character’s state or personality, see Raphaëlle Legrand, “Persée de Lully et Quinault: orientations pour l’analyse dramaturgique d’une tragédie en musique,” Analyse musicale 27 (1992): 12.

23 Both Norman’s and Pynkoski’s remarks occurred during the session of the Lyrica Society at “Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections.” For a provocative reading of Chioldi’s performance in light of the conventions and aesthetics of the tragédie en musique, see Benoît Bolduc, “From Marvel to Camp.

24 Stage directions quoted in this paragraph: “Le Théatre change, & represente la Mer, & un Rivage bordé de Rochers”; “La Mer s’irrite, les flots s’élevent, & s’étendent sur le ravage”; “Les Ethiopiens se placent sur les rochers, qui bordent le ravage”; “sur le ravage”; “Les Tritons & les Neréides paroissent dans la mer. Les Tritons environnent Andromède & l’attachent à un rocher”; “Le Monstre paroit”; “La Mer s’apaise, les flots s’abaissent, & se retirent”; “Les Ethiopiens descendent des rochers, & témoignent leur joye en chantant & en dansant.”

25 On the importance of an act’s structural autonomy, see Rosow, “Lully’s Musical Architecture.” The plot synopsis provided in the Opera Atelier program booklet (p. xvi) follows the production: “At the last moment, Persée flies toward the approaching monster and kills it. Persée and Andromède return to the palace and the Ethiopians celebrate Persée’s victory.”

26 Jean-Baptiste Lully, Persée, tragédie mise en musique, 2nd. ed. (Paris: Ballard, 1722), 152; the entire score can be downloaded with this link: http://www.library.unt.edu/music/lully/Persee.pdf.

27 See Roger Armand Weigert, “Notes de Nicodème Tessin Le Jeune relatives à son séjour à Paris en 1687,” Bulletin de la Société d’histoire de l’art français (1932), 248–52, trans. Wood and Sadler, French Baroque Opera, 124. For Rosow’s thoughts on the choruses’ disposition, see “Lully’s Musical Architecture,” par. 5.1.

28 Opera Atelier program booklet, iii.

Subsequent Communications:

Lois Rosow: A Video of Lully’s Persée

Juliana Gondek: Alcina in Alcina

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