Against the Grain Theatre’s Orphée+; a burlesque inflected version of Gluck’s Orphée, opened a three show run last night at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront. There are many, many things I want to say about this show and the challenge is going to be to present them in some kind of orderly sequence. First off there are expectations for an AtG show in Toronto that probably weren’t present when it opened in Columbus (It’s a co-pro with Opera Columbus and the Banff Centre). We have come to associate AtG with various kinds of “doing differently”; transladaptations, site specific stagings, staged art song and so on. In that context this is a rather conservative show. It’s a production of a canonic opera in a conventional theatre. It’s not a traditional production and would likely shock at the Met or the Lyric but would probably raise only half an eyebrow in Berlin or Barcelona. So I’m inclined to treat it as if I had seen it in Europe.
So what’s the Konzept? Essentially it’s to use burlesque and electronics to try to recreate the elements of baroque “excess” in terms that today’s audience might actually relate to as viscerally as the original audience. This would be an interesting approach to apply to a truly baroque opera but is even more intriguing applied to a work that’s supposed to be a sort of manifesto against baroque artificiality. The truth is that Orphée, as conceived by Gluck, never really achieved that. The “infernal” scenes in the second act and the prosy and artificial finale, resolved only by a deus ex machina, illustrate that and it is on these elments that director Joel Ivany principally directs his “grotesque” elements. To some effect.
The opening is as austere as any Gluck purist could wish. A silent and veiled Euridice processes through a shady grove, made up of fabric streamers from the fly with projections, before Orphée appears and plays the opening melody of the overture on the violin. The orchestra kicks in and we hear the virtual choir (one of the electronic elements; most of the choral music was prerecorded in snippets by many, many singers and remixed) as more sombre projections play on the “trees” and the back wall. Even the dancers in these opening scenes (burlesque troupe Company XIV) seem more of the 18th century than the 21st. It’s only with the appearance of Amour that things change up.
A hoop trapeze descends from the fly and a scantily clad Marcy Richardson is carried on stage by two gold lamé clad male dancers. She pulls up onto the trapeze and launches into her aria. She’s not just perched up there. This is a full on aerialist display involving serious moves while singing. I doubt this aria has ever been sung by a soprano hanging upside down with only an ankle lock keeping her airborne. This one scene is worth the price of admission. Anyway, with a bit more lamenting it’s on to Act 2 and the Infernal Spirits.
Here we go full on burlesque with half a dozen dancers showing more flesh than I imagine a Toronto opera stage has ever scene. There’s also electronic distortion applied to the choir and the electric guitar that had been making harpsichord like noises in the continuo up until now gets a jazzy, improvisatory, raucous riff. The lighting is spectacular (it is throughout). It’s all very effective. Of course, some will be shocked by the amount of flesh on display but one might reasonably ask why so much ballet was included in late 18th and 19th century French ballet. It wasn’t there for connoisseurs of choreography!
Act 3 is the Elysian Fields. This, for me, is the hardest part of the production to read. Euridice is dressed in a full skirt and interacts with the scantily clad dancers in a sort of formal choreography. I’m not sure what was intended here or how it would read to a non-Toronto audience but for an observer of the Toronto scene it’s hard not to see it as a rather good parody of Opera Atelier, taking the “oh so coy” titillation of OA’s publicity to the level they never actually put on stage. Of course, it also leaves one with the question any version of Orpheus has; if the Underworld is like this why on earth would anyone want to come back to life? (I have a similar problem with Dante!).
Act 4 is about what one would expect by now. There’s austerely set prolonged angsting between Orphée and Euridice before Amour makes a final glitzy appearance (hoop again) and puts the worlds to rights. So, it’s a complex production that, doubtless, bears many interpretations but I’ll stick with mine, which makes sense to me and by and large works rather well.
The performances are very good too. Perhaps more than on previous encounters with this work, where the chorus is on stage, I came to realise just how much music Orphée has. It was performed with beauty, stamina and excellent characterisation by Korean counter-tenor Siman Chung. He’s quite a talent. Euridice is sung quite beautifully by Mireille Asselin. I guess her appearances with Opera Atelier rather point up certain parallels but, that aside, here she looks, moves and sings gorgeously. And there’s Marcy Richardson as Amour. If there is another soprano on the planet who can do what she did last night I want to meet her. The singing would have been just fine standing on the stage apron. Hanging upside down by her ankles a few metres above the stage it was sensational.
Topher Mokrzewski conducted with a small band combining conventional instruments with synth and electric guitar. He also had the task of cueing in the prerecorded elements and managing the mix of electronic and acoustic soundscapes. This was mostly very effective though on a few occasions the balance was a bit weird. It should be noted that the “tech” side was created in Columbus and shoehorned into the Fleck in very short order.
So, this is quite a bold show, certainly by North American standards. It applies some new approaches to a well known work, mostly to good effect. It’s touching and funny by turns and features some truly brilliant lighting and projections. It also has Marcy Richardson. The electronic and burlesque elements may not be to everyone’s taste but I think they make sense in the context and although the show can’t entirely avoid the plot weaknesses of Gluck’s piece it at least has fun with them.
There are two more performances tonight and tomorrow night at 8pm.