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.
There are a couple of opera openings next week. Pyramus and Thisbe; the Barbara Monk Feldman, Monteverdi, Chris Alden creation, opens at the COC on Tuesday 20th for a run of seven shows and Opera Atelier are opening a run of six shows of Lully’s Armide at the Elgin starting on Thursday evening. Both shows are very much a case of Canadian talent on display with no big international names. La Traviata continues at the COC in tandem with Pyramus and Thisbe.
There’s one interesting new announcement for the following week. Amanda Smith and Alaina Viau are collaborating on a show called Toronto Darknet Market. It’s inspired by those parts of the internet that even I don’t know about and will run as a sequence of three performances on the 29th starting at 8pm. It’s at 8-11 which is at 233 Spadina (south of Dundas). It’s a PWYC fundraiser for a chamber production of Médée by Marc-Antoine Charpentier next year. Toronto needs more staged baroque opera that’s not Opera Atelier so this initiative deserves support. There will be good young singers on display with music by Purcell, Berg and Cage among others.
Opera Atelier has announced its plans for the 2015/16 season. As seems to have become the norm, the Toronto season will feature one new (to Toronto anyway) production and one remount. The new piece will be Mozart’s little seen Lucio Silla which played at last year’s Salzburg Festival( with a considerably starrier cast) and which is headed for La Scala in a few weeks time. The title role will be sung by Kresimir Spicer, alongside Inga Kalna (Cinna), Mireille Asselin (Celia), Peggy Kriha Dye (Cecillio) and Meghan Lindsay (Giunia). David Fallis and Tafelmusik will be in the pit. There will be six performances as follows; April 7th, 9th, 10th (3:00pm), 12th, 15th, and 16th (4:30pm), 2016 (start times 7:30 pm except where noted). FWIW here’s a review of the Salzburg production.
I had planned on giving Opera Atelier’s production of Lully’s Persée a miss but early reviews were positive and, more importantly for me, suggested there was something new and a bit different about the piece this time around. This production has been around since 2000 and was recorded for DVD four years later so I knew pretty much what to expect and to be honest that’s what we got last night. If there were changes, they were very minor. If anything it’s got even camper and I do wonder whether OA is in danger of becoming a sort of parody of itself. And it’s still three hours of OA doing Lully and if that’s your thing you will not be disappointed. If you are expecting anything else you won’t get it.
Lully’s Armide is pretty much the archetypal tragédie en musique. It features an allegorical prologue praising Louis XIV’s multiple virtues, delivered as a dialogue by La Gloire and La Sagesse followed by five acts based on the Armida/Rinaldo story from Tasso. There are also, of course, lots of ballet interludes. As such, it isn’t all that easy to stage for a modern audience. Robert Carsen and William Christie’s approach for their 2008 Paris production is to frame the story in the context of Versailles.
Lully’s Atys was, apparently, Louis XIV’s favourite opera. It’s not hard to see why. Within the rigid conventions of its time and place it really is rather fine. The plot is classical and convoluted. After an allegorical prologue celebrating Louis’ successful winter campaign in the Low Countries we get the story proper. The hero Atys loves the nymph Sangaride, daughter of the god of the river Sangar, who returns his affection She is betrothed to Celenus, king of the Phrygians. The goddess Cybèle fancies Atys and makes him her high priest. Atys uses his position to nix the wedding which upsets both Cybèle and Celenus. Cybèle blinds Atys who kills himself but is immortalised by being turned into a tree by Cybèle. All of this takes over three hours with lots of ballets and other set pieces. The music is French 17th century court music so it’s a bit unvaried but much of it is very fine indeed.
The works of the French baroque are a rather specialized taste. Some people love them, some not so much. There are also strong views on performance style. Some people favour an essentially modern treatment as in Robert Carsen’s Paris Garnier production of Rameau’s Les Boréades. Others are fans of the fantasy baroque approach taken by the likes of Opera Atelier. I’ve seen good examples of both approaches. What I haven’t seen before is a rigorous attempt to recreate a 17th century staging complete with period appropriate scenery and stage effects. In 2008 such an attempt was made at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique in Paris. The work involved was the first true opera in French; Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione. The results are very interesting.
I’ve been attending performances of Opera Atelier for over twenty years off and on but until viewing this recording of Lully’s Persée I’d never seen them on DVD. I was curious to see how the unique Opera Atelier style would come over on DVD and to what extent watching a recording, which I could compare fairly with other DVD performances, would affect my views of Opera Atelier’s strengths and weaknesses.