“Strip off”, cried Diana, “Strip off, we’re safe here”. The Greek goddess and her nymphs descended into the pool, jewels glittering against wet skin, their voices ringing sweet and clear across the water to the audience sitting poolside on tiered chairs.
Lost and Found Opera’s latest production of Charpentier’s 17th century opera Actéon was set in the University of Western Australia’s aquatic centre. It could only happen in Australia and only with Lost and Found who specialise in performing rare operas in found spaces. Perth audiences have come to expect provocative entertainment and world class music making from this company and Actéon didn’t disappoint.
The miniature French opera recounts the Greek tragedy of the hunter Actéon who accidentally discovered Diana bathing with her attendants and was turned by the goddess into a stag to be ravaged by his hunting hounds. In this production Actéon and his hounds were university students carousing after a fancy dress ball. Part way through the orchestral overture they entered the pool area over a wall carrying a stag head stolen from the dean’s office.
The overture was performed by a seven piece ensemble next to the pool. Artistic director Chris van Tuinen led from a keyboard and his arrangements took extensive liberties with Baroque tradition. The arrival of the inebriated lads signalled a change from pastoral flute and harpsichord to swinging saxophone, piano and drum kit. It was seamless (thanks to Tuinen’s clever arrangements and Charpentier’s flexible basso continuo score) and added to the merry abandon of Acteon and his pack.
More traditional Baroque orchestration was restored for the arrival of Diana and her nymphs, who spent the majority of the 40 minute opera in the water as they reclined, strolled and sang with elegant refinement.
The medium of water as a platform for staging theatre was exploited to wonderful effect by director Brendan Hanson. The water made it easy for characters to literally sink into the background or stand on underwater platforms to deliver a solo and the natural amplification of the water meant the 25 metre enclosed pool area sounded surprisingly intimate. Then there was the mid-aria splashing from Actéon which continued until he was satisfied the front row of the audience (clad in ponchos) were adequately wet.
The most ingenuous use of the water was as a vehicle for dance. Charpentier’s opera was based on Lully’s tragedie en musique form where the ballet numbers were considered as important as the singing. In this production the dancers were represented by synchronised swimmers whose long limbs and graceful patterns were a more than satisfying substitute. The swimmers from SynchroWA also functioned as lighting operators, using their waterproof torches and coloured floating globes to illuminate different areas of the pool at the appropriate moments.
It was a picturesque scene for Diana to bathe and it was clear the goddess, sung with regal warmth by mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms, trusted the privacy and beauty of the glowing pool. She and her attendants bathed topless and their sense of violation when Acteon arrived was palpable, expressed with visceral anger by Caitlin Cassidy as Juno. Acteon was sung with clarion brightness and shapely phrases by Russell Harcourt. His haute-contre (high voice) tenor with its (to modern ears) unusually high pitch reinforced a naive, self-indulgent characterisation of Acteon. The chorus were sourced from Voyces chorale and their resplendent voices added much musical richness.
The production posed a few challenges: the vast space between the male chorus and the music ensemble created timing issues, skilfully resolved each time by Tuinen at the keyboard. The English libretto was often difficult to understand and the final revenge scene wasn’t clear either; the pack of ‘hounds’ seemed to both honour and ravage Acteon as they held a funeral procession then proceeded to whip and sexually harass his body. It seemed hypocritical for Diana to mete out sexual harassment as a punishment for Acteon’s voyeurism. What was clear was the tragic impact of sexual harassment, whether delivered by accident or revenge. It was no accident that Lost and Found staged this opera in the wake of #MeToo and as always their message was powerfully enriched by the medium.
Acteon is sold out. The final performance is Saturday 15th September.