I can’t think of a performing arts troupe with a more recognizable style than Opera Atelier. For the first twenty years of their existence (give or take a few seasons), they straight-jacketed themselves with the idea of authenticity, portraying themselves as a company exploring baroque dance, movement, singing, music and performance, a selective quest, sometimes including unapologetically modern elements.
At one time I used to joke that Opera Atelier are a dance company masquerading as an opera company, although it turns out that the joke’s on me, considering that the other –bigger—opera company in town balks at grand opera, rarely using dancers even when they’re explicitly called for. And so OA’s dance-oriented style is especially apt for French operas, whether the earlier ones by Lully for that dance-happy King Louis XIV, or as we saw tonight, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice in Berlioz’s 19th century version. Thank goodness that for the past few years artistic director Marshall Pynkoski has drifted away from that rigorous style somewhat, resulting in a product that is more relaxed and self-assured. What we’re seeing now are productions that are less about history books than about theatricality & enjoyment, and unapologetically giving their dancers a high profile.
If you’ve never seen anything by Opera Atelier, Orpheus is a great place to start. It’s beautiful on several levels, from a cast that’s gorgeous to look at, giving you a glimpse of heaven and hell as fancifully created by set designer Gerard Gauci, and with extraordinary musicianship at every level. You’ll hear three wonderful soloists, Tafelmusik Orchestra and chorus, led by David Fallis. When I say “hear” it’s worth noting once more how thoughtful Fallis’ leadership is, from a score he has re-created, to levels always letting the singers be heard.
Mireille Lebel is miraculous as Orpheus, striding boldly about the stage with a wonderfully masculine body language, via Pynkoski’s eye for historically informed physical eloquence, without negating her beauty as a woman. The role in its female contralto incarnation lies very low at times, often venturing along below middle C, all clearly articulated by Lebel. Fallis has included such elements as an enormous candenza at the end of one of her arias, so long that one could easily lose ones bearings: but finishing securely on pitch.
Peggy Kriha Dye offers another in her series of remarkable portrayals as Eurydice. The chemistry between her and Lebel’s Orpheus is profound, as I got totally caught up in her emotional blackmail as she tries –and succeeds—in getting Orpheus to turn around and look upon her: which kills her of course. Meghan Lindsay gave us another trouser role alongside Orpheus, playing Amour en travestie. While the story is sometimes given a very dark colour in some readings, this version is extremely light throughout, for a number of reasons. Pynkoski’s recent style employs a great deal of comedy, especially in his work with Amour, who is a bit of a trickster in this production.
But the heavy use of dance also relieves some of the tension, with the many divertissements that make the opera a great deal of fun. At times the dancers are up on their toes, a first for an Opera Atelier show, as choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg at times employed a movement vocabulary breaking out of their usual baroque style, reflecting the work’s relatively modern composition date, at least compared to what’s usual for Opera Atelier.
There are some moments that will sound genuinely new to you, no matter how well you think you know this opera. I was especially impressed by the opening of Act II, namely the encounter between Orpheus and the Furies. The “non!” that the Furies declaim in barring Orpheus’ path sounds unlike any i’ve ever heard, so much so that i wish i could see the score they’re working from. It’s less a sung note and more of a shout, and makes this astonishingly dramatic and edgy, even as Lebel’s gentle voice and expression makes it impossible to sit there without tears. I suppose i am grateful for one thing Pynkoski did that killed the illusion, when for some reason he has the Furies take the lyre out of Orpheus’s hands even as we hear the harp ostentatiously playing –complete with a spotlight– at the same time. I always understood this as a simulation of diegetic performance: that the harp would seem to be Orpheus’ lyre as he seeks to pacify the Furies. So thank you Marshall, as otherwise i would have started sobbing like a little child. It’s still a wonderful scene for all that, the ensuing scene with the Blessed Spirits every bit as enchanting.
Spoiler alert: Pynkoski’s liberation from his old historically informed style and willingness to go for a laugh was never clearer than in the final tableau, when modern signage included a hashtag, earning a huge laugh. Works for me!
Opera Atelier’s Orpheus and Eurydice continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 18th.