Opera Atelier opened their 30th season last night with Lully’s Armide. It’s hard to think of a work that better encapsulates what Opera Atelier is and has always aspired to be. It’s French, it’s 17th century and it’s heavily dependent on ballet, and ballet of an aesthetic that pretty much defines Opera Atelier. The whole Opera Atelier aesthetic package is there in spades. Bare chested male dancers in tights that leave little to the imagination, heaving bosoms, ladies twirling prettily in full skirts, castanets and finger cymbals, chorus singing off stage, camp “baroque” acting, tight buttocked homoeroticism, singers cast as much for eye candy value as vocals, a tendency to play for laughs,Tafelmusik. To be fair, there were a few innovations. I think I heard a more “realistic” vocal style. The singers were prepared to make ugly sounds when the emotional context demanded it, rather than an endless flow of prettiness. The homoeroticism got a BDSM twist in Act 3. Still, this was very much “by the book” Opera Atelier and if that’s your bag you’ll love it.
[Strikes heroic baroque reviewer pose] And so to the details. Lully’s take on the Renaud/Armide, Rinaldo/Armida story, drawn from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata, is entirely conventional. We are in Palestine at the time of the First Crusade. The triumphant Muslims are discomfited by having their Christian prisoners freed by the paladin Renaud. The Muslim’s talisman princess/sorceror Armide swears revenge. Her power is predicated on being able to seduce any man without ever becoming attracted to any. She naturally, becomes smitten with Renaud who for odd reasons has been expelled from the Crusader host. They withdraw to an enchanted pleasure garden. In a comic interlude weirdly reminiscent of Castle Anthrax, Renaud is recalled to duty, killing and cold showers by two bumbling colleagues. Armide has a hissy fit and blows up everything.
The singing is good, sometimes very good. I particularly liked Colin Ainsworth’s Renaud. I think he has the haut-contre timbre and a real sense of style. Armide and her ladies; Peggy Kriha Dye, Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsey were perhaps a little too alike in tone colour but, individually were fine with, as previously noted, Kriha Dye prepared for once to sacrifice purity of tone for dramatic effect. Daniel Belcher was refreshingly snarly as La Haine and Aaron Ferguson and Olivier Laquerre were quite amusing in the Act 4 comedy scene. David Fallis managed to coordinate awkwardly placed orchestral and choral forces effectively and the Tafelmusik orchestra and chorus were mellifluous.
There are five more performances at the Elgin between now and the end of the month and at some point it should be seen at Versailles. I’ve said it before, if you have never seen an Opera Atelier production you should. It’s a unique company. If you have seen them many times you will now whether you want to see this production. There are few surprises.
Photo credits: Bruce Zinger