Opera Atelier: badass Jason vs hot mess Medea

When an opera company remounts a work they’ve done before, one wants to see improvement. Lately every time Opera Atelier revives a piece it comes back better than before.

Tonight was the opening of Charpentier’s Médée, promoted as “Medea and Jason”. It’s been spruced up because it’s to be our collective calling card in Versailles in a few weeks, when Opera Atelier represent Canada as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration.  While the look is still true to the 17th century –using masses of fabric and Gerard Gauci’s signature set-designs—they’ve spent some money to up the ante. When Médée unleashes the forces of hell we see some scary tableaux. I hope artistic director Marshall Pynkoski remembers this for the next time he mounts Der Freischütz, as this is what the Wolfs Glen Scene could have been like, where less is more. Mystery & obscurity beat clarity when you’re trying to scare people.  It’s ironic that more money gave us something much subtler: and better.

It started with the haircut. Colin Ainsworth, the sweet faced tenor of the eternally youthful demeanor channeled something seriously badass tonight, beginning with the hair and the beard. We were seeing more physical contact than ever before, as people were grabbing each other, smacking the walls and the floor, looking very much like an anger management workshop: and not a successful one. I have to think that Pynkoski has been re-thinking his company’s signature movement vocabulary, as we saw the usual poses and balletics, but with the passion turned up a notch or two.

badass_Peggy

Colin Ainsworth (Jason) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Medea), photo by Bruce Zinger.

For decades this was a company strait-jacketed by their own mandate to make historically informed performance. I see Pynkoski–finally– trusting his instincts to make good drama.  Yes by all means read the history books, but don’t be afraid to take ownership of your own creativity. Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more bold moves from this company. I feel that between the last version of this opera that I saw –which was entertaining but very conservative—and what I saw tonight, there’s been a lot of growing up, both by Pynkoski and his company.

Tonight’s version of Charpentier’s opera has a more extreme arc. Surely everyone in the theatre knows exactly where it’s going, exactly what’s coming. The discrepant awareness thing –where we all can see the train-wreck take shape, where we watch characters say really stupid things that make you want them to get a come-uppance—makes this deliciously enjoyable even if it’s possibly a sick kind of pleasure. In the 17th century I am sure the audience members would have been watching and pointing and giggling,  discussing this amongst themselves, not silent the way we are in 2017, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to whisper to my companion. Often the set-up is deliberately ironic, so much so that we’re laughing out loud in the first act. But it gets nastier and darker, not unlike one of those horror movies, where you giggle in places but then it clicks into something altogether more serious.

I’m not sure what it says about me that I am in love with the nasty witch who was so horrible to everyone. Peggy Kriha Dye as Medée has messed up her life for love of Jason. She is just aching to be loved, right? Dye sings with such a sweet achingly plaintive tone for most of the way, how could you not want to love her back? Yes yes she is homicidal, regularly pulling out a knife and doing nasty things when she doesn’t get her way. No, Disney is never going to make an animated film to tell her story. I am astounded at what a good job Dye did, making me care about her. The past few years she keeps offering three-dimensional portrayals of roles that call for larger than life artists. Her approach is unorthodox, balancing baroque ostentation with a kind of vulnerable authenticity. I especially like her recent make-over (not sure when that was), the haircut adding to her edge. But her chemistry with Ainsworth is quite wonderful to watch, as she goes from a sweet wounded girl-child to (spoiler alert…) a demonic sorceress laying waste to the city.

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Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) and Stephen Hegedus (front), with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

While some things are different, some remain unchanged. David Fallis is as always a tower of strength, Tafelmusik orchestra & chorus sounding magnificent in this score. I’ve said before that Lully and Charpentier are really Pynkoski’s promised land, the composers who wrote works requiring ballet throughout. The divertissements are brilliant releases of tension in this magnificent score. Charpentier moves the action along as ably as Verdi or Wagner, occasionally allowing the orchestra, or the chorus, or the ballet, to briskly blow us away with a sudden fast explosion. There are no weak spots in the cast, and some standouts. Alongside the two stars, Mireille Asselin was brilliant in taking us from the height of Créuse’s passion to the deepest agonies of her suffering and death. Stephen Hegedus as her father Créon showed us some of that extra physicality I spoke of, a towering presence both vocally and physically.

Medée continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 29th.

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