Pygmalion NYT Review

New York Times

Happier Ending for Artist’s Jilted Love


Recorded 13 May 2010

L’amour triomphe – Bass part in Ensemble from Pygmalion, Jean-Philippe Rameau
Underworld Productions, Symphony Space, NYC, 13 May 2010, Credits

Published: May 14, 2010

The Underworld Productions Opera Ensemble is intent on finding interesting ways to present opera on a microscopic budget while also making a social point or two about the war of the sexes that animates so many plots.

Joshua Bright for The New York Times

“Pygmalion: My Unfair Lady,” with Casey Hutchinson, center, as the god of love, at Symphony Space.

Last season the troupe staged a version of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in which the audience was asked to vote, by text message, on how the lovers should be paired off at the end. The company’s latest offering, on Thursday evening at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space, was “Pygmalion: My Unfair Lady”: a pairing of Rameau’s “Pygmalion” with a quirky new multimedia piece by Lynn Book. Though less gimmicky than the “Così,” it still involved some plot tweaking.

Technically, “Pygmalion” is not an opera but an acte de ballet: a peculiar French hybrid in which dance reveals as much of the plot as the singing. Pygmalion, a sculptor, is besotted with a statue he has created, a circumstance that his flesh-and-blood girlfriend, Céphise, finds bewildering. She stomps off, demanding that the gods punish him, but Amour, the god of love, decides to bring the statue to life instead, giving Pygmalion his ideal mate.

Gina Crusco, the artistic director of the Underworld group and the director of this production, found this ending unsatisfactory but provided an inventive solution. She combined the roles of Céphise and the Statue (they are usually taken by two singers), and instead of allowing Pygmalion to enjoy his creation brought to life, she devoted part of the work’s central dance suite to having the spirits dress the newly animated statue in Céphise’s clothes. In this version the rejected Céphise gets her man.

It was an interesting twist, and it was set up, to some extent, by a fragment of Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie,” in which Jupiter ruled in favor of love in a dispute between Amour and Diana. The scene was included in Ms. Book’s “Annotated Hippolyte et Aricie,” a piece that includes an electronic score, video, musings about opera and culture, and a good deal that seemed random.

Ms. Grusco’s elegantly simple staging of “Pygmalion” unfolded within spare sets by Hannah Black, with the singers dressed in vaguely antique robes and togas by Carol Pelletier.

Once Nils Neubert overcame his initial tentativeness in the title role, his attractive tenor, beautifully controlled vibrato and amusing, flexible portrayal of Pygmalion carried the evening. Casey Hutchinson gave an attractive account of Amour’s music (and Diana’s, in the “Hippolyte et Aricie” excerpt), and Paige Cutrona made the most of Céphise’s brief moment in the spotlight.

But the real stars here were the players from Sinfonia New York, the period-instrument band, led from the violin by Robert Mealy. Given the centrality of dance in “Pygmalion,” much of the score is instrumental, and these players gave it an energetic, well-balanced reading, with particularly striking contributions from the ensemble’s two flutists, Sandra Miller and Anne Briggs. The dancers, some of whom doubled as chorus singers, executed Edgar Cortes’s lively choreography gracefully.

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