This season, the remarkable Opera Atelier is celebrating its 30th anniversary. During these three decades, the company has continued to educate the audience in the delicacies of baroque opera. In other words, for long-time fans of the company, the concept of 17th and 18th century performance practices seems completely natural, as opposed to the aesthetic being an exotic rarity.
But there is an inherent underlying challenge for director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. How do they avoid a cookie-cutter approach when bringing productions back for a remount? One could say they are trapped within a Renaissance bubble, and once created, an opera will remain the same – gorgeous to watch and listen to, but akin to a visit to an art gallery or museum. The co-artistic directors are so detailed in their approach to staging and dance, that there doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room for further interpretation.
That being said, this third revival of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 masterpiece Armide is a dramatic triumph. Gerard Gauci’s gorgeous sets and Dora Rust-D’Eye’s sumptuous costumes provide the opulent backdrop for an angst-filled journey. Director Pynkoski has always had a sturm und drang approach to character development, but this time around, everything seems more urgent. The psychological trauma of the characters seems more profound. Emotion is writ large as the singers go for the jugular. At times, Pynkoski has ordered his cast to resort to declamation, making ugly, harsh sounds for emphasis that would make their singing teachers cringe.
I was prepared to sit back and let the glorious music and visuals wash over me. Instead, I found myself caught up in the intensity that the singers projected from the stage. The same could be said about the choreography. Armide being a French opera-ballet, dance is a key component of the musical score. In the many scenes involving dance, the movement concepts from Lajeunesse appeared to be more differentiated, heightened and telling. For example, the Demons were whirlwinds of fury, while the Pleasures were all lightness and grace. These elements were certainly included in Opera Atelier’s 2005 North-American premiere of Armide, and the 2012 revival, but not to the same degree of force. In this production, the ballet sequences seemed to jump off the stage. They had a life of their own. As well, excellent dancer Tyler Gledhill as Amour, encased within giant wings, seemed much more integrated into the ballet sequences. Rather than being a mere curiosity, he exuded a strength that manipulated both the humans and the spirits with equal dominance.
Conductor David Fallis and the great Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir added to the vibrancy of this production. Not once did Fallis allow his players to become self-indulgent, playing Lully for Lully’s sake. Rather, the orchestra fed into the life and death struggle of the characters. The conductor also put in long dramatic pauses which added to the drama. As for the choristers, they are led by music director Ivars Taurins whose great strength is producing beauty and evenness of tone.
Pynkoski is blessed with singers who are clearly willing to go wherever he sends them emotionally. You don’t sing with Opera Atelier unless you can act. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye is an Opera Atelier stalwart who is definitely not a chirper. Her Armide displayed a passionate voice that can be coloured to any emotion. In fact, she differs from many Early Music singers by producing a dark sound that has bite, as opposed to being clarion and light. Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) is a haute-contre, that particular brand of tenors who can tackle the high register and keep their voices continually in that stratosphere. His sound is one of uncommon beauty, but he also can throw out the emotional lunges when needed.
Baritone Daniel Belcher is absolutely scary as La Haine (Hatred). His voice can growl, sneer and rage with terrifying impact. Hatred only appears in one scene but he remains a strong figure in memory. The same can be said for bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus as Hidraot. As the magician King of Damascus, he is the only one on stage who is equal to his niece, the sorceress Armide, and Hegedus shows that strength with a robust, commanding sound that rolls through the theatre like a cannonade.
Bass-Baritone Olivier LaQuerre and tenor Aaron Ferguson have great fun as Renaud’s silly friends, Ubalde and Danois respectively. These buffon parts were much beloved by French courtly audiences, and Pynkoski has given them movement which exaggerates their fear of Armide’s powers. Of late, LaQuerre’s voice seems to be losing strength and lustre, but he does present an ease on stage. Ferguson seems to be sliding into tenor character parts which his high clear voice fits very well.
In the secondary roles of Armide’s ladies and demon spirits, are two very first class sopranos, Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay. The women both possess lovely voices, Huhtanen the more bell-like, Lindsay the more honey-coated. They grace every production with dynamic performances.
In the final analysis, Amide is proving itself to be an opera that continues to inspire Pynkoski and Zingg, which, in turn, can only enhance the experience for the audience.
(Lully’s Armide, Opera Atelier, directed by Marshall Pynkoski, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, and conducted by David Fallis, with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Elgin Theatre, Oct. 22 to 31.)