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Review by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
Toronto ON February 22nd 2019
Artists of Atelier Ballet Mireille Asselin, Jesse Blumberg, members of Tafelmusik
Photo credit: Bruce Zinger
I did not know what to expect from the new work commissioned for last night’s performance; the program showed that the company had asked Huizinga to set music to Rainer Maria Rilke’s twentieth-century poem Annunciation, verse that imagines what the angel Gabriel might have said when he fell out of heaven to bring his message to Mary, who does not see him, and barely recognizes that something unusual and pivotal is happening. I wondered why there would be a soprano in addition to a baritone since the poem has no lines for Mary. I wondered how the instruments—two violins plus Huizinga, viola, and continuo (organ, theorbo, and viola da gamba) would be deployed, and what the new composition for them would be like.
I wondered these things out loud to my friend just before the performance, and he sagely replied with a question. Had I ever seen the very early Italian painting of the Annunciation that does not depict Gabriel, but shows Mary’s reaction of astonishment and concern? I had not. It turns out he was exactly right.
Pynkoski explained that the company is developing this new work one module at a time. So far Inception, Annunciation, and Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation are permanent sections of the work; other pieces by Purcell and Boyce are place holders for future additions. The production in this form (a little less than an hour in duration) was premiered in the royal chapel at Versailles.
New music always draws on older styles, and Huizinga’s work is no exception. He favours grounds (repeating bass patterns with changing melodies over them). The rhythms were the strongest feature of his writing. The evening was set out like a suite, with one piece seamlessly changing into the next. The choreography was a mixture of the traditional Baroque dance the company is known for and executes so very, very well, and Glendhill’s modern creations.
Annunciation was one of the most expressive pieces of sacred theatre that I have ever witnessed. Jesse Blumberg, baritone, played Gabriel’s voice and Gledhill played the angel’s movement, his metaphysical presence. When the dancer touched the singer, as if to protect that heaven-sent voice from the coarse environment of the earth, the scene was touching. Gledhill’s choreography was contemporary, strongly expressive, and narrative.
The Angel Speaks: Opera Atelier turns the clock back (and forward!) for old and new music and dance
Opera Atelier is one of Canada’s foremost cultural ambassadors. This year artistic co-directors Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski, both recently and justly named to the Order of Canada, have taken their company, which specializes in the authentic period reconstruction of Baroque opera, to Chicago and Versailles. Previously I have described the great care the company takes in blocking, movement, and the rare art of Baroque expressive gestures, the gesto parlante that accompanies the libretto. Dance is correctly at the heart of their work, because dance is at the heart of Baroque opera, especially French baroque opera.
This fall I was privileged to experience Inception, a new work the company commissioned. It is a composition for solo violin composed and performed by Edwin Huizinga, choreographed by contemporary dancer Tyler Gledhill. Both the music and dance were well deliberated and well crafted. The haunting, evocative work was presented as the prologue to two one-act French operas.
When Gledhill touched Mireille Asselin, soprano with a lovely, projecting voice (Mary) on the cheek, and she realized that something important was transpiring, the effect was magical. This is sacred art at its finest, sensitive and deeply moving. Mary joined Gabriel on the refrain in the poem, “But thou art tree,” Gabriel singing for those phrases in a lovely mezza voce that blended beautifully with the soprano.
At the lines “All the angels fear like this / Let one another go,” the costumed dancers stood apart, looking apprehensive and curious at the momentous event about to transpire. It was a golden moment in the choreography and the poem, one that made the audience hold its breath.
Asselin gave a fiery performance of the Virgin’s Expostulation, Purcell’s piece fitting very well with Huizinga’s new composition.
Since this is a work in progress, and since I am enthusiastically in favour of this company and its new creation, perhaps I may be permitted a suggestion or two. I think that Inception ought to come early in the presentation, before the Annunciation, and I think that now that the suite of pieces has taken this direction, Inception could have a much more developed narrative (Creation or perhaps, as my friend suggested, the allegorical figure of Desire coming to the earth). Gledhill’s costume could be different from the plain black he uses for Annunciation. Lucifer might make an appearance. Every drama needs a villain, and devils are featured in almost all medieval mystery plays (this is conceived as a mystery play, an imagining of scenes interpolated from but not spelled out in the Bible).
The house was packed for this one-night-only performance. But Pynkoski assured us that there is more to come. I plan on being there for each installment!
Opera Atelier will present Mozart's Idomeneo from April 4th - 13th 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
Edwin Huizinga and Tyler Gledhill; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger
Edwin Huizinga, Jesse Blumberg and Tyler Gledhill; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger