Friday, December 29, 2023

Out of the Darkness: Opera Atelier’s Orpheus and Eurydice

Mireille Asselin as Eurydice, with Artist of Atelier Ballet Xi Yi, in Orpheus and Eurydice. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Life after death? The question is purely rhetorical in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s plucky retelling of the ancient Orpheus and Eurydice story. His 1774 French opera ends not – as in the original Ovid myth – in tragedy but in a triumph of love conquering all. As outlined in Ranieri de' Calzabigi’s 18th-century libretto, boy gets girl and lives happily ever after, uplifted by melodious music, song and ballet. Canada’s acclaimed Opera Atelier company, known for its historically accurate stagings of Baroque opera, amplifies the joy in Gluck’s dramatically divergent ending in an energetic production recently presented at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.

Assembling an all-star cast of Canadian singers for their season opener, Opera Atelier co-founders Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg successfully transform Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice into a celebration of not just life but also the power of art to exist for eternity as a testament to the best of human achievement.

Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth gloriously hits all the high-register notes in Gluck’s demanding contra-tenor Orpheus. Though they have fewer arias to sing, sopranos Mireille Asselin as Eurydice and Anna-Julia David as Amour also beguile with their bright and heartfelt performances. Conductor David Fallis leads the Tafelmusik orchestra and chamber choir. Rounding out the cast are the 17 members of the Opera Atelier dance ensemble, led by Zingg, who both choreographed and performs the Baroque ballet sequences.

Gluck’s reform opera, so-called because it replaced Baroque courtly conventions with complex scene development and emotionally expressive music, came about at the request of Marie Antoinette, who reportedly asked the Bavarian composer to modify the Italian version of the opera he had first presented in Vienna in 1762 to satisfy Parisian tastes by adding more dance music and substituting the lead castrato vocal part with a countertenor. Jean-Philippe Rameau was then all the rage in the French capital and while aiming to better Rameau’s grandly elegant operatic productions, Gluck added a psychological dimension, creating characters who pop out of the elaborate scenery to strike a chord with the viewer.

Orpheus, the poet-musician who braves a journey into the Underworld to rescue his beloved from the clutches of Pluto, is, in Gluck’s hands, a tortured soul who frequently breaks into plangent song to give vent to his sorrow. Eurydice, his betrothed, who dies just before their wedding day, sings responsively, probing her lover’s vulnerabilities and stirring him to defiant action after accusing him of cold indifference to her adoration.

In the original story, Orpheus is permitted by the gods to retrieve his beloved from Hades with the condition that he does not look upon her until he has freed her from her shadowy subterranean dungeon— here evoked with heaps of smoking dry ice. Orpheus will lose Eurydice forever should he disobey these orders. And disobey he does, becoming an enduring symbol of the dangers of reckless curiosity. In the original myth, his one mistake leads to all sorts of unpleasantness, including decapitation by the frenzied maenads, followers of Dionysus. But in Gluck’s optimistic pre-French Revolution version, divine intervention ensures that Eurydice is resurrected under the guidance of Amour, a new god of love character for female voice introduced by Gluck to ensure the opera ends with a felicitous reunion. The unusual happy ending does surprise. But Pynkoski’s seamless direction saves it from feeling tagged on, as is sometimes the case with other productions.

An exuberant ballet, featuring fleet low-to-the ground footwork and crowning arms, lends the finale an air of giddy abandonment. Dressed in Michael Legouffe’s macaron-hued costumes, the dancers file back on stage at the conclusion, holding lettered signs that playfully spell out love’s triumph. That sense of victory extends to Opera Atelier itself.

In recognition of their ongoing preservation and revitalization of French cultural heritage, in 2021 Pynkoski and Zingg were invested as officers of France’s Order of Arts and Letters. This year, as soon as Orpheus and Eurydice closed its week-long run on November 1, they were back in France to stage Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera of Versailles. They are constantly raising the bar.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer. In 2023, she published her latest book, Fashioning The Beatles: The Looks That Shook The World

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