Rameau Among the Stars
Rameau, Pygmalion: On Site Opera, New Vintage Baroque Orchestra, Jennifer Peterson (conductor), Madame Tussauds New York, 17.6.2014 (SSM)
Pygmalion: Marc Molomot, tenor
Céphise: Emalie Savoy, soprano
La Statue: Camille Zamora, soprano
L’Amour (Cupid): Justine Aronson, soprano
Jeux (Games): Eloise DeLuca, dancer
Ris (Laughter): Jordan Isadore, dancer
Ensemble: Laura Kelleher, soprano
Christopher Preston Thompson, tenor
Raymond Storms, countertenor
Sean Kroll, bass-baritone
Stage Director: Eric Einhorn
Choreographer: Jordan Isadore
Costume Designer: Candida K. Nichols
Lighting Design: Shawn Kaufman
The very existence of an opera company with the name “On Site” says much about the direction in which opera may be headed. With the recent revelation of the staggering amounts that the Metropolitan Opera must pay its orchestra, chorus and staff, it is no wonder opera companies are struggling to balance their budgets. Musical institutions that have survived a century and more despite the vagaries of the economy find themselves without needed government subsidies. What could seem more wasteful to our philistine politicians than money spent on opera attire and sets. Even the more enlightened and supportive European governments are tightening their belts around opera houses.
With a nod to both the financial requirements and opera of the future, On Site’s vision seems to be one way of keeping this art form relevant and alive. This small group of singers, dancers and instrumentalists looks to match an opera’s theme to its venue. In this case, what better place to “adorn” a performance of Pygmalion than a museum of wax figures? It’s not the first time this had been done in New York: several years ago, a most successful performance of Haydn’s The Man in the Moon was staged appropriately at the Hayden Planetarium.
Granted, this opera company wouldn’t have a multi-million dollar machine built to stage the action of The Ring; or the expense of filling a pool with 1,600 gallons of blood-colored water to symbolize the impurity of Parsifal’s temptations. But then again, how many times have the singers at the Met had the opportunity to be on stage with Julia Roberts, Kim Kardashian, Patrick Stewart and Robin Williams, albeit all made of wax?
Unfortunately, any performing troupe runs the risks inherent in being itinerant. You have little control of your venue: for instance, if you decide to stage the production outdoors, you run the risk of thunderstorms. Coincidentally, a contemporary of Rameau reported: “At the fortissimo of the reprise [to the overture to Pygmalion] there came a terrific flash of lightning, with thunderclaps. We were all struck simultaneously by the marvelous relation between the storm and the music. Assuredly this relation was not intended by the composer; he did not even suspect it.”
During this particular production, it was not rain that interfered with the opera but a noisy air conditioning system, “tuned” very close to the sound level that noise-canceling headphones try to cover when one is on a plane. The resultant hum was a distraction to the soloists as well as a covering-up of the critical basso continuo accompaniment.
But this is glorious music, some of Rameau’s best, beginning with the overture, a loosened version of the Lullian overture, played here vibrantly and at the right tempo by the New Vintage Baroque led by Jennifer Peterson. Although not an avid proponent of program music, Rameau uses imaginatively repeated notes in the upper strings to create a sound representing the sculptor Pygmalion’s chiseling, and it was brightly reproduced by the orchestra.
I had a few reservations about Marc Molomot’s voice. At the beginning, he showed some discomfort, perhaps due to the air conditioning problem, but this role is a tough one, reaching up as it does to the top of the haute-contre range. Most lovely are the pathos-filled falling sevenths, used here by Rameau almost as identifying leitmotifs in Pygmalion’s arias.
Emalie Savoy handled the scorned Céphise convincingly: anger apparent in her eyes, and her voice properly expressing her rage and jealousy. She fares better in this staging than Rameau’s original Céphise: here she wins Pygmalion’s love and La Statue’s return to her pedestal. I’m not sure why the decision was made to end the opera with the comeuppance of La Statue, but I rarely give credence to the irrational plot lines of French Baroque operas anyway.
The stellar performance of the evening was Camille Zamora’s La Statue. To be clearly gifted as a singer is talent enough but to be a skilled mime as well is a rarity. Her gradual transformation from statue to human was riveting. As if she were singing a slow crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo, her body broke out of her stone shell, not in a straight line but with a real sense of how it might be for a statue to become human, gaining two steps forward but losing one at the same time.
Pygmalion was the first of 8 one-act opera-ballets that Rameau wrote late in life, and it’s somewhat unbalanced. The plot is heavy with recitatives and arias in the opening scenes while the rest of the work consists of charming but irrelevant instrumental and ballet interludes. The dancers, often slightly out of synch and clearly constrained by the lack of space, had their Mark Morris moments but never seemed up to the instrumental playing. There was little attempt to bridge a connection to the wax figures, but if there had been, I suspect it would have been hard not to end up as sophomoric.
The remaining two performances of Pygmalion will move to a different venue but one that is also site-specific: the showroom of a company that manufactures display items including mannequins. In what would be a first attempt to use advanced technology, On Site Opera has partnered with Figaro Systems to allow owners of Google Glass to receive streaming virtual subtitles. This would certainly be a step up from the super-titles here which were weakly projected on the proscenium and which I, by happenstance, become aware of sometime in the third scene.