NYCOpera’s Double Bill of Obsessive Love: Il Pigmalione/Pigmalion

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Piotr Buszewski in Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione. Photo by Sarah Shatz.

The Review: Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione/Rameau’s Pigmalion

By Ross

Spreading my theatrical wings a bit wider than normal, I ventured far west to the lovely Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College where the New York City Opera has set up residence for two days to premiere a never seen before pairing of two famous European one-act operas, with one being an American premiere. Both are based on the story of Pygmalion, a fantastical story most familiar because of a narrative poem by Ovid in the Metamorphoses and later, inspirational to George Bernard Shaw in his 1913 play by the same name, and eventually My Fair Lady (book/lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe, in previews at the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont).  The myth also was influential to the story of Pinocchio, in which a wooden puppet is transformed into a “real boy”, and a statue of Queen Hermoine in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (soon to open at TFANA) also comes to life, revealing herself to be Hermoine.  All the versions that were derived from this Greek legend chronicles a similar tale of a sculptor who, after creating a beautiful piece of art, in this case a statue, falls madly and desperately in love with the form.  Pleading with the Gods for help, Venus, the goddess of love, takes pity on him and brings the statue to life. Ovid’s tale is a tad more misanthropic and abstractly risqué, as Pygmalion’s obsession is born out of his mistrust for all women, dressing his statue in fine clothes and jewellery and taking the inanimate object of his desire to bed long before Venus makes his statue flesh and blood.
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Jessica Sandidge, Piotr Buszewski in Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
In some ways, this tale has become increasingly relevant in the modern society we find ourselves living in, where objects of desire and fantastical love is blossoming between people and others through virtual engagements. Relationships are being created and embraced without the two people ever actually meeting. Many would say this is coming out of a very similar and deep mistrust of people in general; a fear to interact with those that are living and breathing close by, with fear being the most important word in this scenario. That kind of real and physical interaction is seen as too risky and uncomfortable, and a love relationship borne inside one’s own mind, developed and projected with all our internal fantasies onto another persona feels safer and easier.
This concept definitely spiked my real world psychotherapist persona, causing me to run wild with this formulation, especially after reading in the program that in the first half of the twentieth century, modern psychiatry was prepared to diagnose a person with a disease called ‘Pygmalionism’, first described by Havelock Ellis in 1927. The sufferer of this disorder, although no one actually was ever diagnosed with it officially, is when a person has fallen in love with a statue. Literally. But, one can make a leap psychotherapeutically, and come to the conclusion that if someone has fallen in love virtually, describing a relationship based solely on a Facebook profile, an Instagram feed, or text messages of any sort, without ever actually meeting that person face to face, or even through FaceTime (although I’d even venture to question that interaction), then possibly that could be diagnosed as ‘Pygmalionism’. Because, to be frank, it’s almost the same thing. And as the world gets more and more disconnected with real life interactions and turn inward towards their projected idealism and virtual interactions, then one might see a rise in the phenomenon of ‘Pigmalionism’.
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Piotr Buszewski in Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Gaetano Donizetti’s 1816 creation, Il Pigmalione, the first in this two-part program, as directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford (NYCO’s Los elementos, Broadway’s My Life/choreographer) seems to dive into that modern schema portraying a man floundering and falling obsessionally in love with the statue he has created. His torment is internal and desperate, and one could question whether he is having some sort of psychological break with reality. The young Polish tenor, Piotr Buszewski (AVA’s Lucia di Lammermoor) in modern garb by Janet O’Neill, the costume designer, languishes in despair and heightened frustration as he struggles with his uncontrollable desires. He calls out for the Gods to help him, but do they respond, or is it his own delusion when Soprano Jessica Sandidge (PTA’s upcoming La Bohéme) as Galatea starts to sing from a different dimension and space, slightly separated by a tall window-like screen on John Farrell’s set. Galatea, interestingly is the name of the statue of the sea-nymph of Galathea, although sometimes referred to as Elise, based upon the variants in the story of Dido/Elissa (Hello, Mr. Shaw). Sandidge’s voice is gorgeous and their attachment profound but psychologically disturbing. The physical separation of statue and singer added a fascinating level of psychological disturbance that only created more drama and dementia to process. I was surprised by the small giggles from the crowd when Pigmalione caresses the inert statue, showing his physical lust for this creation (come on people, grow up), and although the piece lingers on and on, possibly too long to be completely engrossed from start to finish, his tormented debate with himself and his Gods creates a deep and moving representation of obsessive love and delusion that is gripping and beautifully rendered.
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Melanie Long, Samarie Alicea, Thor Arbjornsson, and NYC Opera Chorus (background) in Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s Pigmalion. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
In this first half, we don’t see the morphing nor the physical appearance of Cupid and his/her arrow like we do in Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s 1748 Pigmalion, a one-act acts de ballet, which was first performed at the Opéra in Paris.  This work, generally considered Rameau’s best one-act creation, was said to be written in just eight days.  In this piece, the period is represented more clearly in O’Neill’s costuming, and the statues that are scattered around the space are real humans, waiting to come alive with Cupid’s arrow, played with effervescent joy by Mezzo-soprano Melanie Long (Stewart Wallace’s Hopper’s Wife).  In the notes, the message of this opera-ballet is clear: “an encounter with beautiful things is of crucial importance in the formation of the human mind”. It’s an idea that strips the piece of its internal torment and reaches for other ideals, particularly in the fact that the statue doesn’t become completely human until she is taught to dance.
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Thor Arbjornsson, Samarie Alicea in Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s Pigmalion. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Following Ovid’s scenario more directly, the sculptor, Pigmalion, sung by the sublime Thor Arbjornsson (Cleveland Orchestra’s Le Rossignol) creates and declares love for his beautiful statue.  His girlfriend, Céphise, played with stoic straightforwardness by Mezzo-soprano Julia Snowden (NYCO’s Dolores Claiborne) begging for attention from his lover, is pushed away, spurred for both the statue and his disdain for women in general.  He wants to deny the world outside and exist solely in his creation. Entreating the Goddess Venus to bring his statue to life, the Cupid praises Pigmalion for his artistry and faith, magically enlivens the statue, played lovingly by Samarie Alicea (NYCO’s Los elementos) to sing and dance. Much celebratory singing and dancing follows (NYC Opera Dancers: Sarah Buscaino, Kelly Loughran, Sarah Marchetti, Adam Rogers, Joseph Tudor, Jessica Wu) as the crowd of gallery strollers (NYC Opera Chorus: Maria Palombo, Kathryn Supina, Sishel Claverie, Kat Liu, Chritopher Hochstuhl, Victor Starsky, Kyle Oliver, Makoto Winkler) enter and see what the power of love can accomplish.  It’s gloriously playful, and one can hear the music alter as the statue comes to life, with the harmonies changing color and the orchestra breathing out a warm and magically constructed chord, by conductor Gil Rose (founder of Odyssey Opera).
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Melanie Long, NYC Opera Dancers, Samarie Alicea, Thor Arbjornsson (forefront) in Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s Pigmalion. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Rameau’s creation is filled with much more dance and joy than the first one-act opera by Donizetti, playfully celebrating Cupid’s arrow and the love that it can bring to the world. All kinds of love are celebrated within this piece, as we see Cupid bringing love to the discarded Céphise, but also granting love between two men and also two women. Bravo! They dance and sing with joyous smiles, free of the torment of internal or obsessional love.  And although this piece is definitely more active. pretty, and entertaining, my psychotherapist heart remains with the more stark and darker Donizetti.  His leading man, lost in a delusional adoration of his creation, pulled me in with the simplicity of  his internal dialogue drenched in conflicted thought and uncontrollable passion.
Both of these artistic creations, celebrated in different ways at the time of their conception, will stick with me now forever, especially when I sit down next month for the Lincoln Center‘s production of the musical, My Fair Lady.  This is one of the many reasons I love writing about theatre, the layers of inspiration and history that are piled below the surface, adding depth and solidness to their foundation, and taking us down so many alleyways of thought and artistry.  I am in love with the art, and love when it comes to life in front of me, but don’t diagnose me with ‘Pigmalionism’, please. I’m not quite fallen that far down the rabbit hole.
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Julia Snowden, Thor Arbjornsson, Melanie Long, Samarie Alicea, NYC Opera Dancers and Chorus in Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s Pigmalion. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
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