David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Rameau's Pygmalion Waxes Operatic at Madame Tussauds
Production Navigates Challenges of Site-Specific Format
Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - 01:00 PM
Liberating opera from the opera house – an increasingly fashionable endeavor these days – comes with so many hidden problems as to seem like a Faustian bargain. Gotham Chamber Opera's foray into the sexy cabaret club The Box last year with Eliogabalo, Cavalli’s opera about a Roman emperor craving a sex change, suffered from oddly limited sightlines and an overblown, vulgar performance manner.
Now, Rameau's one-act Pygmalion, which recounts the myth of the sculptor who falls in love with his own statue, found a novel home on Tuesday in an On Site Opera production amid the waxworks of Madame Tussauds on 42nd Street, specifically in what's called the Opening Night Party Room with fancy Old California architecture and renderings of Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart frozen in the act of hobnobbing. The problem: Air conditioning was noisy enough to seem like a wind tunnel – with untold impact on the performers.
The modest 45-minute French-baroque Pygmalion presents its own challenges, its opera/ballet hybrid calling for dance to intervene in the already-fragile plot, in which the burgeoning love between the title character and his statue-come-to-life means discarding his flesh-and-blood lover Cephise, a major presence early on who then seems to drop off the face of the opera. In a modern-dress production with hipsters in the chorus and Cupid in a three-piece suit with wings, stage director Eric Einhorn smartly makes soprano Emalie Savoy (Cephise) a grieving, ongoing presence who eventually sends a letter of presumed condemnation to Pygmalion. Reuniting with her, and allowing the statue (soprano Camille Zamora) to turn back into the statue, isn’t exactly supported by Rameau’s music but doesn't get in its way either. Pluses outweighed minuses.
Music director Jennifer Peterson created a more polished ensemble than in her Agrippina earlier this year (not an On Site production). But could singers adequately hear the off-to-the-side orchestra? Oft-hired tenor Marc Molomot brought his fine, style-appropriate voice to the title role, resourcefully scaling the considerable upper reaches, expressively molding the French text, though the dense coloratura writing in the final aria was not a success. Projecting his voice over the air conditioning can’t have helped.
The women – with the exception of the excellent Justine Aronson as Cupid – didn't seem comfortable in the French baroque manner, but dancers Eloise DeLuca and Jordan Isadore indeed entered the spirit of the piece though resembling early 20th-century Apache dancers more than their courtly 18th-century counterparts.
How much does one blame the choice of venue? The fallacy of site-specific opera lies in matching the repertoire’s surface with a like-minded environment. So often in older operas, one looks past the surface to find its greatness. Theatrical veracity isn’t Pygmalion’s strong point; it needs a venue where the many witty subtleties of Rameau's orchestral writing are inescapable. Once liberated from Madame Tussauds in repeat performances at the Lifestyle-Trimco Mannequin Showroom June 20 and 21, the production might not inspire such piquant dinner-party conversation but would have to be better off. At least opera-goers won’t be facing the 42nd Street hordes.