“Pygmalion” Program Notes by William Berger

Emalie Savoy (Cephise) & Marc Molomot (Pygmalion) Photo by Richard Termine
Emalie Savoy (Cephise) & Marc Molomot (Pygmalion) Photo by Richard Termine

Pygmalion is another telling of the popular myth of the sculptor whose love for the statue he has carved is so intense that it is vivified by the gods to love him in return. The myth has been told famously by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (the Phoenician roots of the name Pygmalion suggest a much older source) down to the present day. The idea of an “artist” endowing his creation with life reverberates in a staggering spectrum of works, from Frankenstein to Weird Science and beyond, while the idea of erotic obsession with an inanimate being continues to hold our attention (cf. Lars and the Real Girl and Her). If we extend the idea of a “statue” of some sort to include an object (usually female) that needs the hand of the “artist” in order to be fully realized, then the myth’s progeny become even more numerous. This is found most notably, of course, in George Bernard Shaw’s aptly named Pygmalion (and its musical offspring My Fair Lady) but also in many other works: Born Yesterday, Pretty Woman, and at least half the films of Woody Allen, for starters. It is a myth because it is, in the defining words of Norman O. Brown, “an old, old story.”

Pygmalion was set to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), the leading French composer of the 18th century and an important music theorist. It was presented as an acte de ballet, the somewhat misleading (in English) name given to a specific genre of stage works. These actes de ballet were, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, works given in a single act and included dance (both instrumental and choral), and solo airs, duets, and choruses. They were not plot-intensive: the stories were meant to provide maximal opportunities for scenic, vocal, and balletic displays. Such actes de ballet were performed at the august Opéra in Paris since, in the proper French sense of order, specific genres of performance were relegated to specific venues (and, to a large extent, still are).

Judged as an acte de ballet, Pygmalion is a masterpiece, and it remained popular throughout the 18th century. The framework of the acte de ballet was meant to provide opportunities for diverse modes of expression: it does. The title character expresses a universal sense of longing in his air “Fatal Amour.” There is magic afoot – more atmosphere and possibilities for scenic wonder. The Graces, no less, teach the statue to move: dance. At last there is infectious joy: grand finale.

Information about the circumstances of Pygmalion’s creation and premiere is of more than academic interest: Such information is crucial for our appreciation of the vitality of Rameau’s work. Whenever an unfamiliar opera is being presented, it’s a good idea to ask basic questions: What type of work is this? From what sort of a milieu did it emerge? How did the needs and tastes of the original audience shape its nature? Perhaps most important: What are we supposed to think about the goings-on on stage? Should we look at these characters as real people we might actually know given the necessary changes in time and place (as in, say, La bohéme)? Or are they allegorical creations (such as “Public Opinion” in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld)? Are they mythological (like many, including those in today’s opera Pygmalion), historical (cf. everyone in John Adams’ Nixon in China), pseudo-historical (cf. Verdi’s Don Carlos), or fantastical (Fafner the Dragon is Wagner’s Siegfried), or some strange combination of all of the above (Siegfried himself)? We also have to ask (and no one ever does, but they should) about time: are we supposed to believe that time is unfolding in this work in some analog to “real” time (Puccini’s Tosca comes close), or does this opera unfold within a universe where some moments (arias) actually take longer than others (dialogue, or recitative)? In fact, we should ask these same questions of the most frequently performed repertory operas as well as the unfamiliar ones if we want to appreciate them better for their own merits.

Context is everything. Without any context, opera is mere noise – visual as well as auditory noise, to be sure, but mere noise all the same. With the wrong context, every opera suffers the fate of being compared unfavorably with another work to which it should never be compared. You hear this all the time in opera house lobbies from would-be Know-It-Alls: Gounod’s Faust lacks the philosophical depth of Wagner’s operas (no kidding); Puccini’s Tosca is emotionally overwrought compared to Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (yeah, so…?). The wrong context is as fatal to the appreciation of a given opera as no context at all. Conversely, given the right context, the person in the audience has the potential to enjoy a seemingly limitless buffet of masterpieces from across the centuries, and to enjoy them with the same vital relish that tickled the original audiences.

It was precisely these errors that kept Rameau out of fashion and off the stages throughout much of the 19th century. The plot was lame, they thought, compared to, say, Rigoletto… The action stopped (this was the cardinal sin of late 19th century opera, as if action were a constant in the universe) for ballet, of all things… Tannhäuser, for example, kept the action going through the ballet! The 19th Century audience had little use for the stylization of Pygmalion. It would have seemed as constrained and unnatural as a formal French garden.

Interest in the French baroque composers rekindled toward the end of the 19th century: some commentators hold the plausible belief that the French were rediscovering their national treasures as retaliation for the humiliating military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. (I personally believe it was more of a reaction to the onslaught of Wagner than of Bismarck, but no matter). Conservatories peered back into Rameau and others. Rameau became something of a marble bust in the imaginary French hall of fame. Even though this enshrinement was an important step in the rehabilitation of Rameau to the public, it is exactly the sort of thing that is antithetical to his work. Rameau’s operas, we have come to (re)discover, are vivid, exciting, participatory, and embrace the audience directly, if allowed to. Rameau himself became the statue that we in today’s audience will bring back to life.

Even though actes de ballet were given at the Opéra (the building itself is long gone), we have to remember how Parisian theaters functioned at that time. They were horseshoe-shaped; all lighting was by candle (even gaslight lay in the future) and therefore was not generally adjusted in the auditorium. The audience had little choice but to watch each other as well as the stage. (Wagner, later, would cite these issues as problems he intended to rectify – in Rameau’s day they were an accepted and celebrated part of the theater experience. We err in assuming Wagner was always right since he lived later in history than Rameau). Audiences danced with each other before, after, and sometimes during the performance, either in the lobby or in what we now call the “orchestra” section, generally on the same level as the stage. Sometimes, (for example in pastorales, another genre of entertainment given in theaters), they joined in the choral singing. And what a visual dimension these audiences must have conferred on an evening in the theater! Fashion, make-up, and hair never had more exuberant expressions than in France during the 1740s.

All of which is to say that the line between the show on the stage and the one in the audience was blurry to the point of non-existence. The audience was part of the spectacle in a way that seems foreign and presumptuous today. Rameau’s music is easily appreciated. Removing the artist from the pedestal, chipping away at his marble, and moving into his work – physically as well as psychically – is now the next step in the rediscovery and revitalization of this art that thrilled the original audiences.


Will Berger-3William Berger is an author, lecturer, radio commentator and Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.

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