Opera Atelier makes an admirable debut with French Baroque double bill

Fri Nov 16, 2018 at 2:51 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Colin Ainsworth and Meghan Lindsay in Opera Atelier’s production of Rameau’s “Pygmalion” at the Harris Theater. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Opera Atelier made its first Chicago appearance Thursday night with a double helping of French Baroque works by Charpentier and Rameau at the Harris Theater.

Before she came to Chicago, Harris Theater president and CEO Patricia Barretto served as executive director of Opera Atelier. It was perhaps inevitable that Barretto would bring her former company to town, since Atelier’s fusion of classical music and dance fits neatly into the Harris bailiwick of spotlighting both genres.

Founded in 1985 by the married dance team of director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Opera Atelier has been bringing historically informed opera to Toronto audiences for more than three decades, with an emphasis on Baroque works.

The company’s admirable performances of two French works—with a contemporary linking interlude—were visually sumptuous, gracefully rendered and often impressive Thursday night. Still, overall, the evening proved mixed with the musical element often on a less convincing level than the dancing and production values.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon led off the evening. Likely written around 1684 to coincide with the hunting season, Charpentier’s pastorale tells the tale of the title hunter who happens upon Diana and her nymphs bathing. As punishment for his presumptuous peeping, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting hounds.

The production quandary in works like Actéon is whether to go with a dancer who can sing in the title role or a singer who can dance. Atelier opted for the latter route with Colin Ainsworth as Actéon. Though in no way a balletic professional, the tall, slender tenor was a graceful, dramatically engaged presence, game at handling the simpler choreography and stage moves devised for him.

Vocally, Ainsworth’s lyric tenor sounded a bit miscast in this haut-contre role, with his light voice sounding a bit worn at the top and challenged by the high tessitura.

Mireille Asselin as Diana, Meghan Lindsay as Arethuze and, especially, Allyson McHardy as a smoky-voiced Junon, filled out the singing cast well. The Atelier chorus, stationed off to the left apron of the stage was consistently excellent.

The dancing seemed fluent and cohesive to this non-balletomane with Tyler Gledhill’s athletic stag solos providing the most arresting moment of the night. Still, there were moments when Zingg’s choreography seemed rather by the numbers. One appreciates that the ballet is supposed to reflect the ancient style, but surely more can be done within that context than the rather tired and predictable movements too often on display. The painted backdrops and costumes by Gerard Gauci were functional and offered attractive visuals. 

Part of the problem Thursday was the musical component. Even for a semi-period instrument band, the two-dozen-plus members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra sounded decidedly beefy for this music. Conductor David Fallis led with some generalized sense of early Baroque style; but the sonority often felt too weighty and there were repeated, blunt edges in the playing and an overall lack of polish. The ironed-out tempos exacerbated the feeling of heavy-footed  routine.

More broadly, the emphasis on elaborate costumes and painted backdrops contributed to a pageant-like feel to the proceedings that initially seemed respectful, quaint and charmingly retro; and other times, old-fashioned, stuffy and a bit dull—something this music definitely is not.  At times one felt stuck in a musicological time warp, experiencing what must have passed for historically informed Baroque performance several decades ago.

After intermission, the energy level picked up with a more audacious and fluent melding of the contemporary and the past.

The second half began with Inception by Edwin Huizenga, which was starkly presented on a bare Harris stage up to the brick back wall. The composer is a member of Tafelmusik’s second violin section, and Huizinga entered the stage playing a spare, song-like theme on his violin, which soon accelerated into a rustic echt-Baroque dance and increasingly fiery fiddle passages. Huizinga is shadowed by a red-winged dancer (Gledhill) as Inception morphs into an unorthodox but compelling pas de deux for violinist and dancer. As the piece slows down and the initial music is reprised, the sets come down from the flies, leading directly into Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Pygmalion.

As in Acteon, the plot is simple and here much more familiar. Having carved a statue of a beautiful woman, Pygmalion has fallen in love with it. He is berated by his understandably upset girlfriend Cephise; Pygmalion calls upon Venus to animate the statute, Galatea, which indeed comes to life and the couple are united. Love and merriment reign and the opera ends in a suite of contrasted dances.

The role of Pygmalion lies more comfortably for Ainsworth’s lyric tenor; here he sang with greater warmth and security, even if he didn’t possess the agility or vocal brilliance to pull off the climactic showpiece “Regne, Amour”

In addition to holding still in a difficult pose for an impressively long time, Meghan Lindsay was both amusing and touching as the anthropomorphic Galatea.  Mireille Asselin’s gracious emcee of an Amour was the standout in the supporting cast.

In Rameau’s confection, Opera Atelier was show to their best advantage, blending music and dance in a confident, fluent way that conveyed the company’s holistic versatility.

Still while the dancing by the ensemble was clean, fleet and vivacious, Zingg’s choreography too often leaned on the self-consciously cutesy, as in the knockabout Punch and Judy episode. And in the paean to Love coda, one need not be a hardened unromantic cynic to find the giant red heart and exploding streamers insufferably corny and lame.

Musically, one really missed a more idiomatic hand in the orchestra pit in this work. With moderate tempos throughout that diluted the fizz and vivacity of Rameau’s delightful music, the composer’s whirling energy, luminous textures and resourceful scoring were largely missing in action.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Harris Theater. harristheaterchicago.org

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Opera Atelier makes an admirable debut with French Baroque double bill”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2018 at 9:15 am by Paul Merkley FRSC, PhD Music

    I think this review misses important points and sells the music and choreography short unjustly. The Tafelmusik orchestra is an excellent, internationally renowned ensemble. The size and instrumentation is historically authentic. The tuning (A 392) is authentic. The continuo was crisp and the strings, led by Elisa Critterio, spot on.

    Colin Ainsworth’s voice was certainly up to both roles, and the exciting aria at the end of Pygmalion made that clear. The lower tuning brought the tessitura well within his range, and yes, the singers of this company move very well. In fact they time every gesture to specific musical beats at Marshall Pynkowski’s direction.

    The company conveyed the symbolic language of baroque gestures (the ‘gesto parlante’) to illustrating the feelings of the text with precision and grace. I’m not sure what one could find to complain about the exquisite choreography and its careful execution.

    I certainly admired it. If your reviewer does not understand this period of music, that is unfortunate. I do, and I am very impressed.

    Paul A. Merkley, FRSC, professor emeritus U. of Ottawa, PhD Harvard University

  2. Posted Nov 17, 2018 at 3:50 pm by Judith Kolata

    I and everyone in my proximity were charmed and delighted by this performance. The voices, especially Ainsworth’s, the dancing, the orchestra and chorus, the costumes, sets — all were lovely and made for a remarkable evening. I hope the Harris brings them back. Bravi!

  3. Posted Nov 18, 2018 at 7:43 pm by Jonathan Brodie

    If the second night performance of this show (which I attended) was close in quality to that of the first night (which Mr. Johnson attended) then this review is “a shanda” (one of my grandmother’s favorite Yiddishisms.)

    ‘vantage No. 1: The band. It was better than fine. They played with verve and were impressively in “in sync” (both spiritually and in terms of ensemble) with the stage. Any roughness heard was a purposeful gesture that reflected the dramatic situation of the moment. They also played in tune. (I would say with ‘beautiful intonation”…but I don’t want to sound pompous.)

    ‘vantage No. 2 The artists on stage: They sang and danced like they meant it. They managed to commingle expressivity, virtuosity, pathos, and wit, in equal measure.

    ‘Vantage no.3. The choreography: Professor Merkley’s informed praise
    (above) can’t be bettered.

    ‘vantage No. 4. The chorus: “Consistently excellent” does not do them justice.

    It was not the performance that was caught in a “musicological time warp” and was stuffy but rather this review. Perhaps Mr. Johnson was looking for “authenticity” (whatever that means) or a lacuna of corn. I really don’t know. Fortunately, these artists were beyond such concerns.

    They wanted to put on a good show.

    They succeeded.

Leave a Comment