Opera Atelier to make Chicago debut with French Baroque double bill

Mon Nov 12, 2018 at 3:01 pm

By Hedy Weiss

Dancer Tyler Gledhill and violinist Edwin Huizinga in “Inception,” the centerpiece of Opera Atelier’s double bill, which will be performed Thursday and Friday at the Harris Theater. Photo: Bruce Zinger

The many masters of Baroque music—composers who flourished throughout Europe between 1600 and 1750, and whose work was a foundational element of the Classical era that followed—hardly need an introduction: Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Frideric Handel, and Claudio Monteverdi, among the illustrious names. 

But while the instrumental music of the period is widely familiar (whether played on period or modern instruments), the distinctive style of Baroque opera and ballet is less widely known and appreciated. (Though Haymarket Opera has certainly done its part in recent seasons to make the genre better known in Chicago.)

For more than three decades, Opera Atelier has been on mission to popularize Baroque opera.

Since the Toronto-based company’s co-founding in 1985 by the husband-and-wife team of director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Opera Atelier has presented acclaimed productions of rarely performed classics–enhanced by a collaboration with the 27-member Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra led by David Fallis.

The company will make its Chicago debut at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance Thursday and Friday nights with a double bill of French Baroque beauties: Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Acteon and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion. Though very different, both operas are based on mythic transformational stories drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And both will feature acclaimed Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth.

Charpentier’s Acteon, composed in 1683 for his patron, King Louis XIV, is a tragedy. It spins the story of the young hunter of the title who favors hunting above “amour,” but who one day accidentally glimpses the goddess Diana and her attendants bathing. He tries to hide, but in a fit of rage Diana punishes him by turning him into a stag, and he is subsequently torn apart by his own hounds.

Rameau’s romantic Pygmalion, created in 1748 for the court of Louis XV, tells the familiar tale of the sculptor who falls in love with one of his creations. And after the goddess Cenus brings his statue to life the stage erupts in a celebration of the pleasures of love.

“What sets Baroque opera apart is its highly gestural style,” said Pynkoski during a recent chat. “It is an acting style that began in the Renaissance and lasted through the silent film era, until the Stanislavsky and Method style of acting took over. 

“Prior to that change, actors thought of themselves as great storytellers who could elicit an emotional response by describing a feeling to their audience,” he said. “The audience was seen as participants rather than voyeurs. The tears were not shed onstage but by the audience. The understanding was that a great actor stayed outside of what was going on but had control of the audience. And the writing of Baroque opera lends itself to that.”

Pynkoski adds that Baroque opera is akin to a Broadway musical. “The music, dance and design elements must all be firing together, and in a sense this makes the whole thing less esoteric than later operas.”

As for Baroque dance, Pynkoski explains that it was a fully developed art, not ‘baby ballet’ of the pre-pointe shoe era. “It is all about fantastic detail, with a beautiful delineation of character in the arms. The dancing is an intricate and integral part of the musical experience.”

Charpentier’s “Actéon” will be performed by Opera Atelier this week in Chicago. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Opera Atelier presents five performances each fall and spring at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, tours internationally, and, most fittingly, has an ongoing relationship with The Royal Theatre at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. The company will perform this double bill at Versailles following its Chicago engagement.

Each of the company’s elaborate spectacles (with sets by Gerard Gauci) requires a long rehearsal period, sometimes up to five weeks. (Canadian government arts funding is essential and generous.)

“We build everything from the ground up,” said Pynkoski.  “And we fly in coaches from Paris to work with our singers during long, intense rehearsal days.”

“Our performers can’t be ‘careful’” he adds; “these operas make huge emotional demands.”

One of the lures of pairing the Charpentier and Rameau works was the way they reflect the dramatic differences in two French courts, says Pynkoski.

“Louis XIV’s court was older, and his audiences were concerned about their souls and mortality. The king was an almost evangelical Catholic, and his wife was a fan of it, too; so the court became devout, and there was a sense of guilt about the everlasting wars and wild sexual life of the period. 

Acteon starts out as a light, charming, sexy piece with Diana unrobing, but it then turns a corner and becomes very dark, and ends with an almost liturgical lament. The moral is that to succumb to desire can lead to one’s destruction. And Charpentier was an absolute genius of a composer who could manipulate people’s emotions with the force of a roller coaster ride.”

Pygmalion, by contrast, is about the pleasures of love. “After the goddess Venus turns the artist’s sculpture into a real woman he takes her to bed, with a great celebration to follow,” says Pynkoski.

To link the two operas, and bring a touch of the contemporary to the whole evening, Pynkoski also commissioned an interlude, “Inception.” Composed and performed by violinist Edwin Huizinga, it is choreographed in modern dance style by Atelier dancer Tyler Gledhill, who takes on the character of Eros.

“That was my wife’s idea,” said Pynkoski, who went on to explain that the two met in a ballet class when they were teenagers. Because they were both tall, they became pas de deux partners.

“I came from suburban Toronto and Jeannette grew up in Europe, which fascinated me,” said Pynkoski. “And there was a lot of back and forth before we got married.”

For its Harris engagement, Atelier also has devised a family program that will include the less gruesome elements of Acteon and the big celebration, complete with tambourine, from the finale of Pygmalion.

Opera Atelier’s visit to Chicago is a natural. Not only is the city home to the enduring, much beloved Music of the Baroque and the upstart Haymarket Opera. But Patricia Barretto, who arrived at the Harris in 2015, and was soon named president and CEO, spent the previous five years of her career leading Atelier and expanding its international presence.

“I fell in love with the incredible precision of Atelier’s singers and dancers, and the way its productions gave equal importance to both,” said Barretto. “They really have it down to a science. And each production is visually stunning, too.”

To be sure, Atelier does not travel light.

“They will arrive here with a total of 75 people – singers, dancers, musicians and a very specialized technical crew,” said Barretto. “But after last year’s hugely successful three-night engagement of Monteverdi (with John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists), I knew we had the audience for it.”

Opera Atelier’s double bill of Acteon and Pygmalion will be performed 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Harris Theater. There will also be a one-hour family program 2 p.m. Saturday. 312-334-7777; harristheater.org.

Hedy Weiss served as the Theater and Dance Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984-2018. She has been a longtime commentator on theater for “Chicago Tonight,” the nightly news magazine for WTTW, Chicago’s PBS affiliate, and contributes reviews on all the arts to its website. She also writes a monthly cultural column for The Jewish United Fund’s magazine and has contributed to Dance Magazine, Playbill and other publications.

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