Opera Atelier’s new film Angel premiered last night. It consists of six scenes which, we are told, can be performed as a sequence or individually. There’s a basic theme of “angels” and the texts are drawn from Milton and Rilke (in translation). The score is by Edwin Huizinga and Christopher Bagan with some of the dance music being actual baroque works.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag. There’s kind of a gritty industrial vibe in places that breaks away from the traditional Opera Atelier aesthetic, helped by heavy use of black and white in the filming. The highly stylized baroque acting and the choreography, except for some of Tyler Gledhill’s solo pieces, is straight out of the standard OA playbook. The instrumental music is quite interesting with a baroque style core that is constantly challenged by other elements. The vocal line is less interesting lying more or less solidly in the middle voice and producing that kind of dull narrative effect that plagues so many new American operas. It doesn’t help that the Rilke often sounds disturbingly banal in translation.
The main thing that disturbed me though is that Milton and Rilke’s very different concepts of “angel” don’t seem to reflected aesthetically in any element. Milton’s roburust, very human Lucifer gets music, and dance, and cinematography indistinguishable from that given to Rilke’s much more ethereal idea of “angel”. This is quite jarring when we go from overthrowing heaven to mystical ideas about trees and unicorns in, essentially, the same language. It’s also a missed opportunity for surely the singers could have been given more to do with the Rilke text for as it stands their talents are sadly underutilized. So there’s some solid singing and acting here from Colin Ainsworth and Douglas Williams, in particular, in the Milton passages but Meghan Lindsay and Mireille Asselin are given next to nothing to do while Measha Brueggergrosman, with whom Opera Atelier is rather more infatuated than myself, declaims the Rilke texts in a language almost akin to musical theatre.
It’s rather the same with the dance elements. The sections involving Tyler Gledhill dancing his own choreography provide some interest and contrast while the OA ballet’s usual leaping and prancing don’t really do much dramatically for either set of texts.
This was, I think, the first Opera Atelier piece created from inception as a film, rather than a stage show adapted for film. Film director Marcel Canzona uses quite a wide range of techniques and special effects, including extensive use of black and white and other non-naturalistic colour schemes. There’s also quite a bit of what looks like hand held camera used in close up. In some ways this adds an interestingly chaotic element but frankly stylized baroque acting in super close up is a bit grotesque. There’s a reason why film acting evolved to a more naturalistic approach! And again, some visual differentiation between the Rilke and the Milton would not have come amiss.
Performance wise, the soloists did what they could with the music they had. Both the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and Tafelmusik sounded excellent and David Fallis certainly generated some musical drama but, alas, couldn’t do much to help the soloists.
So, in summary, Angel has some good ideas and some passages that work well but it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent whole and really, if you are going to have a sung work, the vocal music needs to be much more compelling.