Tonight I was present at the North American Premiere of The Angel Speaks, a program of several works in several styles from Opera Atelier in a single performance for a small audience at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Would we call it opera? The word takes many forms and shapes. I think tonight I wanted to call them “Ballet Atelier”, this company who foreground dance, and whose identity is more rooted in movement vocabularies & physical appearance than in anything you’d find in a score or a libretto.
As Opera Atelier co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski explained it in his introduction The Angel Speaks, the work we saw tonight, is part of a longer development process. It was a pleasant unveiling, entirely in the right place.
We were watching the performance in the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, in a space with the same foot print as the chapel space in Versailles (where I think the work was premiered, if I understood what Pynkoski was telling us).
Speaking of footprint…!
…we were in the presence of old and new, the building a post-modern juxtaposition of styles, the dinosaurs as the most ancient witnesses. The dance was both the baroque we’ve seen before from Opera Atelier and something new, as Tyler Gledhill spent a great deal of time on the floor. The scores were from Henry Purcell but also new ones from baroque violinist Edwin Huizinga, tuneful pieces that are not out of place in such a program or in the midst of a baroque program. It’s the ultimate challenge to a composer to put their new work alongside brilliant compositions that have endured for centuries: a test Huizinga passed. His music is mostly melodic, at times reminding me of Vivaldi in the frenetic solo passages for his violin –that he played himself—while in others, channeling a minimalist mix of Erik Satie & Philip Glass, gentle pattern music that easily held the stage and the audience.
While there was singing, I felt we were more in the realm of dance than opera, as the singing was often self-conscious rather than dramatized, a very theatrical presentation that did not call forth much in the way of a dramatic illusion. Baritone Jesse Blumberg started us off with Purcell’s beautiful “Music for Awhile”. I looked across the space at the audience, not sure if they were getting the text, especially when we come to the magical phrase “Till the snakes drop…..drop…. drop…. from her head, And the whip from out her hands.” Purcell’s composition really sounds like something is dropping when we hear those words. Blumberg delicately began the opening phrase on the threshold of our hearing.
Huizinga’s setting of Rilke’s “Annunciation” seems to be the heart of the piece. Here’s a bit from the program note:
In the process of turning this poem into a dramatic cantata, we have developed a loose, expressionistic plot line that focuses on the angel Gabriel, rather than the Virgin. Gabriel’s confusion, disorientation and gradual recognition of his mission provides exceptional fodder for accompanied recitative. It also allows for the opportunity of writing for two voices—soprano and baritone—from distinct worlds. The angel Gabriel is able to see the Virgin; he circles her,, touches her and explores the sensation of awe she inspires. She, in turn is unable to see the angel-but mesmerically repeats selections of his words and key phrases, as though speaking in a dream. At the conclusion, Gabriel is drawn back into his true element and the Virgin is left standing alone. She is like an icon or jewel—exquisite but unaware of its own brilliance.
While the objective may be operatic, so far the dance & the music are the most advanced in this project, and clearly in the foreground of what we saw, as so far the dramatization is in the movement + music less than in some treatment of the text via the singing. Most of what we heard and saw was very beautiful all the same.
I will sound like a bit of a school-marm when I say that I had one objection. But the closing piece, sung exquisitely by Mireille Assselin (who was perfection throughout) was mis-used if not abused. I’m speaking of Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn”, a favourite of mine and one of the most genuine & sincere addresses to the creator that I’ve ever encountered, since I stumbled upon it on Michael Slattery’s The People’s Purcell CD last summer, a phenomenal piece of writing. It’s such a simple thing, as though the singer were talking to God. And so it began wonderfully in a solo, that turned into background music while the entire company danced to it. Sorry, but the choreography cheapens and arguably perverts the spirituality in this music. Okay it’s an experiment, and hopefully they will notice this glaring shift of tone, hopefully noting that what does or does not work. No one is asking me, but I’d suggest that they either permit Asselin to sing the hymn to its conclusion, perhaps at the beginning rather than the end (when the prayerful quality of the piece takes us deep into the heart of everything Rilke would want to invoke), and if the full ballet must take the stage to end, then finish with a secular piece such as the excerpt from Come Ye Sons of Art.
But the baroque music—a bit of Boyce and a whole lot more Purcell—was stunning throughout from a few members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Asselin & Blumberg.
I’ll be intrigued to see what comes of this experiment. So far so good.