Opera Atelier has been here before.
November 2015, one week after a trio of deadly terrorist attacks shook Paris, Canada’s premier Baroque opera company opened a charged revival of Lully’s dazzling Armide in nearby Versailles under a darkening cloud of mounting anxiety.
In December 2018, as the gilets jaunes rampaged through the streets of the French capital’s landmark Étoile district, the perennially dauntless Toronto-based band of early music theatre specialists returned to the Royal Opera Versailles to open Actéon and Pygmalion amid escalating expressions of profound national unease.
Four years later, at an intense dress rehearsal at Koerner Hall last Friday, a dedicated troupe of artists, musicians and technicians led by co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg meticulously polished and finessed OA’s first live offering since 2019 against an unsettlingly familiar backdrop of lingering domestic appehension.
Strikingly in defiance of continuing headlines bannering the spreading stain of extremist rhetoric and mob psychosis at home and beyond, Opera Atelier’s most recent presentation, a vibrant 75-minute concert drama entitled, All Is Love, pulsed with a generosity of spirit long overdue, an embracing of our humanness, an upholding of goodness desperately in need of communal voice.
“I think you choose your reality,” Pynkoski remarked in a brief post rehearsal conversation. “And that’s not hiding or putting your head in the sand. I’m surrounded by love. I’m surrounded by people who love what they’re doing. I’m surrounded by people who love each other. In the past two years, we’ve had to make a conscious decision, Jeannette and me, that our reality is going to be a reality of positivity. I don’t want any part of anger or fear.”
A heartfelt artistic response to a global cataclysm. A life-preserving theatrical vaccination against cynicism and despair. Long after the final curtain call, All Is Love still glows bright as a glorious dream.
Narrative, however loosely exploited during the course of what ultimately proved to be a singularly engaging in-person experience, utterly enthralled, program and presentation mutable and fluid while still firmly rooted in theme — an exploration of the boundless paradox of love, its power both to seize and liberate, at times simultaneously.
Conjuring a ravishing world of swirling fantasy and illusion, singer actors charged with life, dancers, forever in motion, assuming any number of captivating personae, Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg filled Koerner Hall to overflowing with pure magic.
Erasing any suggestion of flatness and mundanity from the customary minimalist concert stage, Opera Atelier resident set designer Gerard Gauci applied his own brand of enchantment. A lofty wooden staircase upstage centre. A changeable montage of mythical artwork drawn from Gauci’s imagination projected onto an immense screen overhead. Moody settings. Epic portraits.
Repeatedly drawn to the compass points of its own prolific performance history, Opera Atelier has understandably amassed a considerable volume of signature pieces by way of repertoire. All Is Love shamelessly drew, in no small measure, on the company’s past, reprising and reforming a variety of iconic works, effectively transplanting a vibrant sample of the company’s varied operatic CV to the active Koerner Hall stage.
A healthy handful of selections extracted from Something Rich and Strange, an early pandemic era OA digital concert originally slated to livestream from the familiar downtown venue, postponed by acute public health concerns, ultimately filmed and released online in December 2020, all traced a purposeful route full circle back to their place of common origin.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan sang a particularly affective Mi lusingha il dolce affetto (“I am enchanted by tender feelings”) from George Frideric Handel’s haunting Alcina.
Sopranos Meghan Lindsay and Cynthia Smithers delighted with Purcell’s sly, slinky duet from King Arthur, Two daughters of this Aged stream.
Tenor Colin Ainsworth contributed an irresistibly alluring Plus j’observe ces lieux from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide.
Composer/violinist Edwin Huizinga and principal dancer/choreographer Tyler Gledhill thrilled, as always, with a particularly emotional rendition of their stunningly impassioned collaboration, Inception, first unveiled by Opera Atelier in February 2018 at ROM, presented overseas 10 months later in the Royal Chapel Versailles, generously remounted for local small screens several times since.
Time rendered timeless. History moves ahead.
Launching the evening on a distinctly all new note, soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee, partnered by pianist Ben Cruchley, positively electrified with a sumptuous rendition of her self-originated title piece, All is Love, dedicated to Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg. Cannily arranged by assistant conductor Christopher Bagan, Reynaldo Hahn’s stylish 20th century art song, À Chloris, gracefully merged with a 17th century theatre piece by Purcell, Sweeter than roses, Brueggergosman-Lee clearly revelling in the interplay of sparkling harmony and text.
Summoning Hahn a second time in the program, visiting French soloist Rémy Mathieu sang an exquisite L’heure exquise infusing the inventive modernist composer’s supremely lyrical mélodie with great tenderness and intimacy, Mathieu uniting with fellow tenor Ainsworth, the latter silent and still, in a profoundly touching example of gentle scena.
Sweetly embracing Handel’s lovely lament from Semele, O sleep, why dost thou leave me, soprano Mireille Asselin quite simply charmed as All Is Love slipped into a world of moonlight and mystery.
Premiered in 1902, Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece, has, by Pynkoski’s own admission, long fascinated him as a director, a restless theatrical riddle where nothing and everything is revealed. Spotlighting Scene 1, arguably the most enigmatic moment in an opera of endless ambiguity, Pynkoski unpacked a few of his preliminary thoughts on stage, choreographer Lajeunesse Zingg summoning an airy corps of wispy spirits, lighting designer Kimberly Purtell conjuring an infinitely dark shadowy forest.
Appearing as an untypically seductive Golaud, bass-baritone Douglas Williams smouldered in a complex, highly assertive capsule performance, Meghan Lindsay as Mélisande embodying a brave, unexpected strength of will, her recitative flashed with a fierce determination to survive.
A sweeping Passacaille from King Arthur, singers and dancers joined in a grand celebration of love in all its guises and All Is Love passed into memory. Still vivid. Still seen and heard, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, glowingly conducted by David Fallis, sounding as luminous and resonant as ever.
All Is Love, like love itself, cast a potent spell.