Man splashing in pool
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Semi-submersible opera a success

Review: Lost and Found Opera, Charpentier’s Actéon ·
UWA Aquatic Centre, 12 September ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

“Strip off,” cries Diana, “Strip off, we’re safe here.” The Greek goddess and her nymphs descend 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 miniature French opera Actéon is 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 Greek tragedy, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, recounts how the hunter Actéon 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 are university students carousing after a fancy dress ball. Part way through the orchestral overture they enter the pool area over a wall, carrying a stag head stolen from the dean’s office.

Performers at side of pool
Russell Harcourt as Acteon (carrying stag) and his pack of hounds. Photo: Daniel James Grant

The overture is performed by a seven piece ensemble, next to the pool. Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen led from a keyboard and his arrangements take extensive liberties with Baroque tradition. The arrival of the inebriated lads signals a change from pastoral flute and harpsichord to swinging saxophone, piano and drum kit. It is seamless (thanks to Tuinen’s clever arrangements and Charpentier’s flexible basso continuo score) and adds to the merry abandon of Actéon and his pack.

More traditional Baroque orchestration is restored for the arrival of Diana and her nymphs, who spend the majority of the 40 minute opera in the water as they recline, stroll and sing with elegant refinement.

The medium of water as a platform for staging theatre has been exploited to wonderful effect by director Brendan Hanson. The water makes 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 is 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 are represented by synchronised swimmers (from SynchroWA) whose long limbs and graceful patterns were a more than satisfying substitute. The swimmers also function as lighting operators, using their waterproof torches and coloured floating globes to illuminate different areas of the pool at the appropriate moments.

Globes floating in water
A picturesque scene: Diana’s attendants prepare for bathing in ‘Acteon’. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

It is a picturesque scene for Diana to bathe and it is clear the goddess, sung with regal warmth by mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms, trusts the privacy and beauty of the glowing pool. She and her attendants bathe topless and their sense of violation when Actéon arrives was expressed with visceral anger by Caitlin Cassidy as Juno. Actéon 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. The chorus was 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, though these were 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 Actéon 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 Actéon’s voyeurism. What was clear was the tragic impact of sexual harassment, whether delivered by accident or revenge. It is no accident that Lost and Found has staged this opera in the wake of #metoo and, as always, their message was powerfully enriched by the medium.

Actéon‘s sold out season closes September 15. 

Pictured top: Russell Harcourt, as Actéon. Photos: Daniel James Grant.

This review was first published on Noted and is published with kind permission from Rosalind Appleby.