Opera Lafayette bounded onto the stage at the Terrace Theatre this week offering a “post-modern” baroque opera that was both elegant and fresh. Artistic Director Ryan Brown teamed up with choreographer Seán Curran in a remount of Actéon, a minor classic by seventeenth century French composer Marc-Antoin Charpentier, that Brown’s company has given us straight up before, but this production was served shaken with a twist.
As if to tune our ears to what for some may sound like a drone, that is the sound in the strings of early period instruments, and to whet our appetite for the company’s mounting of a big production in 2015 for their twentieth anniversary, the company began the evening with excerpts showcasing an opera of Jean-Philippe Rameau. I am not a fan of concert opera, but it gave the ensemble members an opportunity to be featured and to warm up their voices.
It also showed off to advantage the array of colors and tempi that Brown gets from these early instruments. Under his direction, the music was thoughtfully and beautifully realized, with good continuo choices made for the strings and oboe, giving some depth to the small musical forces at hand. At times, the ensemble sounded playful and even humorous, from a kind of ‘cat and mouse’ scurrying to the sprightly Rigaudons topping the first half of the program.
When the second half of the program opened with the featured opera Actéon, we, like the orchestra, were all tuned to receive. This little opera, barely forty minutes, interpreted anew by director Seán Curran, was altogether charming.
Curran immediately hit us with a chic streamlined stage designed by Mark Randall. A big white O painted on the black floor and a handful of contemporary, steel legged chairs, some black, some white with perforated circles. Costume designer Amanda Shafran dressed the singers in black tops and trousers and two dancers in white. Instead of missing the marvel of authentic period costume and movement, I felt immediately that the work was freed up to speak directly. The formal simplicity of the elements was striking, especially lit by Colin K. Bills stylish lighting.
The set’s minimalism accentuated the structure and flavor of Charpentier’s score. The music is marked by gently rising and falling cadences or like a circular wheel lifting up then releasing downward. The painted white circle emblemized the figures in the choreography. Curran cleverly incorporates elements from this early dance style – the feet positions from ballets, the graceful circular port de bras, the modified extensions, and the repeated patterns to emphasize a compact circularity of style.
The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the account from classical Greek mythology. Actéon, the hunter, abjures the temptations of the weaker sex for the pleasures of traipsing solitarily through the woods and enjoying the manly sport of hunting. Meanwhile, the goddess Diana and her nymphs are enjoying some girl time. Actéon comes upon the goddess bathing, never a good thing, especially upon a deity pretty well gone off of men. When Diana discovers him spying on her, she changes him into a stag. The poor man is torn apart by his own hounds in a very sad ending indeed.
In the opera, the structure follows each scene with a dance interlude. Curran uses these to feature two dancers, Elizabeth Coker and Benny Olk, who initiate, reprise, and echo movement themes. When both dancers are introduced, Olk with white flowing sleeves like Albrecht from classical ballet’s Giselle and Coker in a white short Greek-like tunic, they perform a walking step that pushes the foot just a little beyond where it would naturally fall to step forward followed by a slight drag as if moving the legs through an atmosphere of resistance. They announce a choreographic style based on meshing everyday movements with balletic forms.
Curran then turns opera on its head by having the singers play the role of dance chorus to the dancers’ high profile, and every boundary soon gets happily blurred. The agile singers take part in the deceptively simple patterns of choreography. Circles upon circles, sweeping runs and curving patterns, more circles as the women spin Actéon around until he become giddy and disoriented. It was wonderful to see dancers so game and flexible in their thinking to give over to the choreographer’s vision.
Aaron Sheehan is deliciously comfortable in the title role, having performed it with the Boston Early Music Festival and, as wildly as the others, throws himself into the post-modern style. Having formerly steeped himself in the gestural vocabulary of traditional baroque dance, he brings certain gestures into this production more than the other singers, yet softens them so that they become integrated and texturally abstract. In an early scene where the chorus joins him he almost imperceptibly draws one arm back with bent elbow and the other stretches into what one suddenly realizes is the classical pose from baroque of the hunter. One should not quibble that these gestural moments occasionally are so often repeated that they risk becoming overly literal.
In delivering Chapentier’s iconic tenor style (haute-contre,) Sheehan’s voice sounds natural and sustained throughout. His vocal flourishes always seem motivated by character and emotion. When as the hunter Actéon, he sings with solo theorbo (a lute instrument) about his own transformation, he laments all that he is losing as he the hunter disappears into being the thing to be hunted, in a deeply moving aria.
Kelly Ballou is equipped with a bright and animated stage presence. As a key member of the tight ensemble for Actéon, she shone and most successfully absorbed the precision and “readied tone” of dancers. In an aria she performs for Diana, as a young girl-page who creates a song extempore for her, Ballou crafts believably moment to moment.
Russian-American soprano Yulia Van Doren as Diana, returns to Opera Lafayette in this sobered and mature role and demonstrates her voice has grown even more eloquent and luscious.
I only regret, seeing her stand draped in a Madonna-blue shawl classically that she was kept apart from participating much in the physicality of the ensemble. I loved the scene when Van Doren and the other women circle playfully arm-in-arm in a grapevine step, they conjure Matisse’s famous painting of the blue women dancing. When they imaginatively cup water over their arms, bathing in a stream, while Coker stands on a white chair and pours water from one clear glass pitcher into another, they achieve a little miracle of stage beauty.
The members of this ensemble work closely and seamlessly to achieve the vocal and physical lightness needed for this ensemble work. Baritone David Newmann, tenor François-Olivier Jean, soprano Laetitia de Beck Spitzer and mezzo Sarah Mesko demonstrated lovely musicality and physical ease required for the style of production.
The most notable effect of the evening is how everything is dialed down from certain habits we associate with traditional ballet or opera. There’s singular grace here delivered with not an ounce of tension. Everything seems simple and familiar, with an unfettering of the human body that is philosophically traced back to the pioneer work of Isadora Duncan. The strong limbs of dancer Coker accentuates this connection, as she leads the others in dance rounds.
At the end, the ensemble becomes chorus and sings of “chance alone” that decided Actéon’s tragic demise. Dancers and singers become one and the two central characters transfer from the singers to the dancers. In a final image, Coker assumes the posture of a goddess, her torso twisting away from the male dancer beside her and eyes cast low. Olk crosses his feet in a final closed fifth position, then raises his arms to cross them at the wrists, with fingers stretch just a little to effect an image of stag horns. In so doing, he manifests a symbol of Actéon in his final transformation.
I am delighted Brown continues to stretch us and the baroque material, daring to take the music out of its own period, crossing centuries and dance styles, to reach new audiences.
– This Highly Recommended performance of Actéon, had a brief run at The Kennedy Center,and closed May 2, 2013 –
Actéon . Music by Marc-Antoin Charpentier . Conducted by Ryan Brown . Directed by Seán Curran . Produced by Opera Lafayette . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith