Opera Atelier’s company of Actéon; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON November 16th 2018

Enchantments of Love and Two Sister Cities: Toronto’s Opera Atelier Performs in the Harris Theater

It is easy for a Torontonian to love Chicago. It is easy for someone from either Great Lakes city, Chicago or Toronto, to love the supreme effort and result of Opera Atelierin producing Charpentier’sActéonandRameau’sPygmaliontonight in Chicago’s versatile, welcoming Harris Theater

Opera Atelier puts a great deal of work into its authentic reconstructions of baroque operas, and they are specialized in French repertoire. First, these works are inseparable from dance, and director Marshall Pynkoski places a great deal of emphasis on the movement of the singers and the choreography for the dancers. There is the essential language from this period of gesture, the gesto parlante, the gesture that communicates the feeling. There is also the vivid, precise representation, almost like ballet, that comes from Pynkoski’s assignment of every gesture and movement to a specific musical beat. The scene came alive in one of his blocking rehearsals. The same is true for the lighting and the movement of backdrops. These are tied to specific musical moments. The choreography, prepared by Jeannette Lajuenesse Zingg, is exact, beautiful, and evocative.

The music is prepared with similar care and depth. Conductor David Fallis prepared Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque and Chamber Orchestra and a fine chorus to perform all of the music with its rhythmic complexity, including the period conventions of over-dotting and notes inégales, the conversion of equal values to unequal triplet-like rhythms. This was the period of musique mésurée, of long and short beats of music which matched what were held to be long and short syllables (a consideration absent from the French language but adopted in this period for theatre and music).

Before the performance tonight a tuner was carefully tuning the harpsichord to the pitch of A 392 Hz (instead of A 440 Hz as in modern tuning or A 415 Hz as in much baroque music). Fallis explained to me that this music was originally performed at A 392 Hz, and that to do otherwise would strain the voices, pushing the whole tessitura up a bit for the whole performance. Would one do that in the case of Verdi? he remarked. Of course, one would not. This is just another effort of authenticity in the service of the music.

Repeteteur Christopher Bagan substituted on the harpsichord with very good success. The continuo was crisp and rhythmically precise throughout. The same was true of the chorus which was expressive, exact, and effective.

Colin Ainsworth was superb in both title roles. His range, expression, and movement made this opera a delight to experience. Mireille Asselin excelled as Diana in the first opera, and Amour in the second. Meghan Lindsay played the role of the statue who came to life in Pygmalion very aptly. 

I had only one (extravagant) wish, and even that was fulfilled in its own way. At the time, instead of a conductor with a baton, marking the beats in a pattern, the master in charge of the production would simply bring a wooden staff down on the floor at every bar, or downbeat. In addition to keeping the players and singers together in time, there would have been a sound to this beating, almost a kind of percussion, which would have been part of the piece. No one would dream of conducting in this fashion today—it is hard enough to keep the players together with regular conducting, let alone leave them to their own devices between beats. Still I have often wondered what it would have sounded like.

In the second scene of Actéon, Pynkoski had the dancers move with wooden staves, and strike them on the floor, actually on the off beats. The sound of their staves is what I imagine that “conducting” practice would have sounded like, and I think this scene is testimony to Pynkoski’s admirable musical sensibilities.

Visually the production is stunning. All of the muslin backdrops are hand painted, a labour of love. The Harris Theater, with its practical construction, allows these backdrops or flies to be taken away or replaced at a moment’s notice, and permits the paintings for the second opera to be in place while the first is still being performed.

The Chicago team and the Toronto artists cannot say enough about each other.  The Harris Theater allows the operas to be staged easily and effectively. The theater is very glad to host what it considers the crown jewel of Canada’s opera companies. Designed just fifteen years ago for music and dance, this is a very apt venue for the production of baroque opera, a genre in which music and dance collaborate very closely to tell the story. I had the good fortune to experience the first performance in Toronto, and to come to opening night in Chicago. I recommend it to everyone.

Those who missed last night’s performance have another chance, Friday November 16th 2018 and Saturday November 17th, 2018, before the company travels to Versailles.


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