Review by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
Toronto ON December 2nd 2018
Trade, exports, and imports are again in the news; no more NAFTA, now we have USMAC (or maybe the same letters in another order?). Our economists frequently lament Canada’s lack of ‘added value’ products; we export raw materials and buy the finished products back from other countries at higher prices. We are hewers of wood and drawers of water.
But that is not true in the domain of classical music and dance, at least not this fall. Canada has a significant cultural export this year because Opera Atelier’s production of two one-act Baroque operas—Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion, produced and premiered in Toronto, have gone on tour, first at the Harris Theater in Chicago, and now at Versailles.
Opera Atelier goes on Tour: Chicago and Versailles
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Opera Atelier Chicago Tour 2018; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger
The company is dedicated to the period reconstruction of Baroque operas in minute detail, including not just period instruments, but dance, costume, gesture, in short everything that can be reproduced to give the audience an authentic experience of Baroque opera as it was performed in its day.
The co-directors are the driving force: director Marshall Pynkoski and co-director and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Both were formed in the world of dance, and they bring their skill in and enthusiasm for expression through movement to the blocking and staging of these productions. It is a very appropriate approach, because dance is a very large part of Baroque opera, especially in the case of the French productions in which the company specializes.
A particular feature of Baroque theatre and opera is the language of gesture that communicates feelings and ideas. It has been called the gesto parlante, a good name because the gestures do speak a text to the audience. Many performers shy away from it because it is difficult to learn, and they are afraid it will seem artificial, but music of this period cannot truly be performed or appreciated without it, and the performers of Opera Atelier execute it very well.
In blocking rehearsals Pynkoski specifies the precise musical beats on which the singers are to move or make gestures. As they put these into practice the production comes alive. When they are performed in public, with the singers costumed and in full voice, the effect is mesmerizing.
David Fallis directs the musical side of the production, with careful attention to every detail. I was fortunate to be able to attend a technical rehearsal in Toronto, and two performances, one in Toronto and the other in Chicago. When we were shown backstage in the Harris Theater there, a tuner was hurriedly working on a harpsichord. Some effort had been required to locate a harpsichord that could be played at A392, rather than the more frequently encountered A415. Fallis had determined that the original production was done at the lower of the lower pitches, and an instrument had to be found that could sound well at that frequency
The instrumentalists are from the acclaimed, excellent Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, another ensemble dedicated to the reproduction of period style. Orchestra director Elisa Citterio is a consummate performer and orchestra leader. Oboist John Abberger plays that very difficult Baroque instrument naturally and easily. Harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger unfailingly maintains the basso continuo, the force without which the music could not exist. In the execution of rhythmic conventions and ornamentation, Tafelmusik is a Baroque ensemble of the very highest quality.
Opera Atelier maintains a fine stable of solo singers and adds to it each year. In the present productions Colin Ainsworth is a virtuosic, expressive Actéon and Pygmalion. Mireille Asselin excels at the roles of Diane and Amour, Meghan Lindsay plays the statue that comes to life in Pygmalion to perfection, and Allyson McHardy is the vengeful Juno in Actéon, vocally gloating and taking credit for the ruthless (if just) killing of the protagonist. The choruses in both Toronto and Chicago, constituted specifically for this production, were spot on, and effective.
And the dancers! What grace and expression! What athleticism! And the costumes—the choreography was a visual feast in itself.
A feast for the eyes and a banquet for the ears. This production takes the audience back to the time of composition. Canada, and Canadian artistic and cultural sensitivity could not have had better ambassadors than the members of Opera Atelier. We have been very well represented in both Chicago and Versailles. And the season is not over yet! Stay tuned. I will.
The female artists of Atelier Ballet and OA dancer Tyler Gledhill
as our “Canadian Icon in Red”; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger
Artists of “Opera Atelier Takes Canada to the World” campaign;
Photo credit: Bruce Zinger