This is the first time in years that I return from an Opera Atelier performance happy that I went.
There are usually a number of things that put me off Opera Atelier. For example 1) their very peculiar notion of the ‘authentic HIP performance’ (which always leads to similar sets, costumes, choreography and even hand positioning of every character, no matter the composer or the work performed), 2) their appreciation of the male gay homoerotic aesthetic, while completely avoiding any female gay homoerotic aesthetic (trouser role casting, for example, was near impossible to find in this company that favours countertenors; female dancers are always in prim hoop skirts while male dancers usually sport either body suits or tights), 3) the opulence, the ‘beautiful’ of the kind that certain opera donors in North America favour and want to see at the opera.
Last night, I’m happy to report, each of the 3 pillars has been shaken in some way—not radically, but small steps of this kind must feel radical for Opera Atelier patrons and subscribers, and for the company itself, so enamoured of its own tradition. Who knows, maybe in the future they’ll even cast a slightly overweight or a non-Caucasian singer or dancer? Anything can happen.
I didn’t actually want to be facetious, but praise seriously. Regarding 1), for the first time the set designer Gerard Gauci together with the director Marshall Pynkoski conceded that it might be okay to use video projections even though they are not HIP. (I don’t believe they ever worried about using the electricity or modern-day plumbing while preparing previous productions, so some inconsistency is obviously acceptable.) An insight for which we are grateful, because the video is used to really good effect. As Alcina’s previous victims are liberated from whatever inanimate form they were assigned—rocks, water, trees—the images move and humans appear as if from a layer of pentimento. Even in the less dramatic or the purely connecting scenes, the video is well employed (passing clouds, for example).
Further regarding 1), the stilted inexpressive hand gestures are almost all gone. There is still a lot of fussing over leg positioning in many scenes, and occasionally the stock arm positioning reemerges (I’ve spotted some in the pleading solo arias) but none of it exceedingly jars. Sometimes what replaces them is not always ideal—the early scenes between Bradamante and Alcina seem to be inspired by the silent era film—but let’s not quibble. It may appear to be a small step for us, but it’s a huge one for OA and we salute it.
2) This production is also somewhat more relaxed about female bodies, women courting and kissing each other, female desire in all its forms. There are still some blockages, mind; one of the steamiest scenes, Morgana singing ‘Torna mi a vagheggiar’ to Bradamante, is turned into a scene of Morgana singing to Bradamante’s coat, after Bradamante herself escaped backstage while Morgana was barely finishing the A section of the aria. But things improve elsewhere. Bradamante is kept in her masculine garb even after her reconciliation with Ruggiero—the two women look so much alike that the idea of the opposite-sex couple is continuously undermined. After some initial bumps and the exaggerated silent-film kisses, Alcina and Ruggiero do find their groove—or rather, their chemistry. Near the end, when Ruggiero sings ‘Sta nell ircana’, various bits of armour are handed to him/her to put on for the hunt, one of which is an armour bra (not a full plate). Touché.
Let’s look at the music before this missive gets too long. David Fallis was conducting Tafelmusik and his tempi were nothing extravagant or unusual. The trouser role of Oberto was entirely excised and so was his story line (he’d usually be on the island looking for his father) but I can’t say I missed either terribly. There is some great employment of instrumentalists outside the pit, so for the most of the fabulously effective ‘Si, son quella’, Meghan Lindsay is accompanied by the cellist (Felix Deak) and the lute (Lucas Harris) who are both part of the staging. Violinist Patricia Ahern also appears on stage in a later aria.
Mireille Asselin was an excellent choice for Morgana. Her sparkling energy, coquetterie and falling-in-love-ability puts the whole opera merrily in motion, with her opening aria. She was also excellent in ‘Torna mi a vagheggiar’, but the staging had her, as I mentioned, singing to a coat. Asselin’s acting was also convincing throughout, including the scenes of her reconciliation with Oronte.
Alcina’s ‘Di, cor mio’ was when we first see the enchanted couple in a scene of intimacy, and it took me a while to warm up to Meghan Lindsay in this role. Her future is probably in the Germanic repertoire—she was an excellent Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz a few seasons ago—but for Alcina I usually expect a lighter sound that can float endlessly, without any heaviness, any metallic shades. She was much more moving in ‘Si, son quella’, ‘Ombre pallide’ and ‘Ah! Mio cor!’, all slower, melancholy arias.
Wallis Giunta I thought was not the right voice for Bradamante—she came across as colourless and underpowered vocally, with unsmooth jumps between the registers, coloratura runs occasionally causing stress. Perhaps she was under the weather? Bradamante is usually given some high powered material (see for ex ‘Vorrei vendicarmi’), and anything less than high powered in the performance is immediately visible. I last saw Giunta as a very good Dorabella in Egoyan’s Così, and she can definitely do classical elegance and self-containment, but Bradamante’s baroque excess is to classical style what, say, Penelope Cruz is to Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Christina Barcelona.
Krešimir Špicer impressed in his scenes as a laddish Oronte, prone to foot stomping and shenanigans but deep down inside a heart of gold. His voice was also probably a size bigger than anybody else’s on cast (apart from Lindsay’s).
Allyson McHardy was a very accomplished Ruggiero, wonderful in each of her solos, from the teasing and fun ‘La bocca vaga’, to ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ full of resignation and foreboding, to ‘Verdi prati’, a sobering farewell to a dying love, to ‘Sta nell’ircana’, the frantic re-assertion of one’s old self. It’s a treat to hear a Bradamante with contralto colours.
Alcina continues today 26, Tuesday 28, Friday 31 and Saturday 1 at the Elgin. The cheapest ticket is $45, but you can get some really good balcony seats and extreme side view orchestra seats in that price range. More info on the production, libretto and original casting here.