Medea by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Opera Atelier. At The Elgin Theatre. Continues through April 29. See operaatelier.com for tickets
Every once in a while an opera comes along that is so special it makes you wonder if what you just saw really took place. In the case of Opera Atelier’s most recent production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea (and Jason), launched this past weekend on the perfectly intimate stage at the Elgin Theatre, it became clear that what took place in front of us was not only very real, but also the product of astonishing creative imagination.
Reaching back to its 1693 première at the Théâtre du Palais-Royale in Paris, Opera Atelier’s creative team resuscitated and re-imagined this magnificent five-act French tragic opera in dance and music, moving well beyond our treasured recordings of this classic by William Christie and in particular Hervé Niquet, who directed the 2002 Opera Atelier version here what seems like a very long time ago in the company’s history.
How far Opera Atelier has journeyed artistically from those days to now is an immense artistic distance indeed. What we come away after seeing Medea is a production that strikes robustly and sincerely as an astonishing creative conflation of all the representative artistic media one would expect to see in early French opera on any stage anywhere today, the very acme of what we might imagine the French court to have demanded from its best artists in the time of Louis XIV. There is no doubt that when this production tours Versailles (the company’s fourth invitation to do so) in May, they are going to have yet another hit on their hands.
It was not enough for them to simply “recreate” the work. By the end of Act I it was clear that Opera Atelier had gone well beyond merely dusting off a museum piece in the meagre name of serviceable authenticity. Thanks to a year’s immersive research, Opera Atelier’s co-artistic directors Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg (concept, dance, choreography, and choreology) and Marshall Pynkoski (stage direction, acting, and concept) left no stone unturned in their extensive work on the libretto, score and dance. What made this production so exciting was to see both music and dance finally on perfect, artistically equilibrated, equal footing.
As a result, the company has created a cohesive, living, breathing new entity that riffed well on the original Médée, while inserting a remarkable trouvaille of considerable treasure aligning the old with the new into every facet of the opera. The result was a smart, mildly contemporary treatment that still retained its period-piece aesthetic while underscoring how we might see this grand tragédie with a new perspective on the story, one every bit as relevant to the late seventeenth century as it is to us in the early twenty-first.
The opera-ballet was so good I had to see it twice on both Saturday and Sunday, given the high level of innovative professionalism that spoke eloquent volumes. Opera Atelier has produced their finest project to date, nothing less than a demonstration through a masterful artistic synthesis of how anyone at the French court in the era of the Sun King would have understood what it meant to be a complete, artistically and intellectually-fulfilled person.
With iron-clad dramatic singing all the way from Colin Ainsworth’s ignominious Jason, who cannot stand to suffer another moment of his devoted Medea, played with considerable puissance and in multiple vocal styles by Peggy Kriha Dye, and a triangulated Mireille Asselin whose seemingly innocent but devious Créuse rounded out the love intrigue, it was a night never short on a moment of fire and passion, tenderness and touch, manipulation followed by devastation, and the much-enjoyed ensuing wrath and vengeance of the opera’s title character. The singers made it all flow perfectly and held their audience captive with pure stylistic singing and emotional power eminently demonstrating every gesture and stance appropriate to the text, the stock and trade of archetypal theatricality appropriately suited to the Molière era.
The casting was through and through perfect, with Mr. Ainsworth’s Jason roving from petulant to truculent and showing that the hero of the Golden Fleece was, in reality, a reprobate player and user of his wife Medea, casting her aside after he had found enough use for her spells to abet his heroism, and wishing that he could be “loved just a little less.” Mr. Ainsworth even brought a churlishness to his upper-timbre when he complained in Act III that he could not bear Medea’s complaints any longer about his faithfulness, knowing full well that his betrothal to Créuse will follow in the very next scene, breaking Medea’s heart.
When I saw Mr. Ainsworth perform the role again Sunday afternoon, he was even better than Saturday’s opening night, looking consummately self-assured and in complete harmonic control, not only relying on his trademark lyricism but reaching professionally for much more in timbre and vocal acting. Audiences will appreciate his strident depictions: a heroism of convenience fraught with self-deception that reaps its consequences, and finally, Mr. Ainsworth’s striking counterpoise of shock and incredulity relative to a delirious Medea who murders Jason’s sons, her own children in effect, giving in to a vengeance that yields a cathartic consummation of Euripidean tragedy.
The Greeks always knew that when we made our choices in life that sometimes we could reap unforeseen devastating consequences to which we are truly blind, a form of fatalism that wends its way through classical drama with a certainty that only tightens its grip as we inch closer to its inevitable conclusion. This requires deft directorial hands to make sure that every nuance along the way is never overlooked in onstage drama, blocking, French-styled theatrical gesture and rhythmicity of speech. And in the time of Louis XIV, that would have meant the requirement of both Dance and Music to inspirate the drama together, so as to satisfactorily bring a tragédie such as Médée to the peak of story-telling fruition.
The role of the vengeful Medea clearly suited Ms. Kriha Dye, Opera Atelier’s mainstay soprano, who returned to cast her spells once again with Mr. Ainsworth’s Jason as the object of her antagonistic magic. The pair were featured in Opera Atelier’s lush 2015 production of Lully’s Armide, with Ms. Kriha Dye in the title role as the legendary witch who attempts to manipulate the innocent Renaud, played by Mr. Ainsworth.
It was Act III that musically struck home the most however, particularly at the epicentre of the opera (“Quel prix de mon amour”). It was here, after a heart-rending aria of despair, that Ms. Kriha Dye began to channel Medea’s sinister, diabolical side, and we heard a more evocative, almost incantatory aspect to her role, especially in the later acts where her sorcery was on full display. Here, as elsewhere, she was the master of the darkest keys in this opera, C minor and G minor (the recurrent key of sorcery), often but not always reserved for moods of despair and inner conflict. Some of Charpentier’s most innovative passages in the score are written for Medea, and thanks to conductor David Fallis and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, with new concertmaster and first soloist Elisa Citterio, their harmonic crystallization found the fullest range of emotion, coalesced into onstage dramatic art of gripping involvement for performers and audience alike.
Medea also can be a particularly vulnerable role to sing, and the character’s vocalizations often required a part-singing, part-dramatic/theatric quality that involved pitching notes and even entire phrases with a more speech-like musicality, an artistic necessity demanded of singers in the age of Louis XIV. This was well done and made her performance convince us of a Medea wronged to the level of fury only fitting a woman scorned.
There is much deserved praise we could heap on every one of the singers, however my favourite was Stephen Hegedus who gave a multi-dimensional depiction of Créon, ruler of Corinth and manipulator of all in his path. His was a role executed with subtle performative power of manipulative coercion to get what he wanted, namely the best marriage possible for his daughter Créuse. Créon is an opportunist and a highly-prized hero such as the duplicitous Jason, suits his needs. When the Corinthian court conspired to banish the unjustly accused semi-divine sorceress Medea, Mr. Hegedus is believable in his shallow politics. He was at his best however, toward the end of the opera when he pulled off a truly convincing descent into madness, driven to stark extremes by Medea’s darkest magic. She subverts his power to rule when she entrances his guards, who cannot place her under arrest and he watches them helplessly as they duel with one another (to some exquisitely choreographed leaps and swordplay in cut-time) and then are seduced by her ‘phantoms’ in a haunting Act IV ballet.
Mr. Hegedus has always brought expressive range to his various and diverse roles, whether it be his Alidoro in last year’s production of Rossini’s Cenerentola for Edmonton Opera or Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin for Against the Grain Theatre, to name just two wonderful performances. And in Medea he is at home with the unique blend of acting and singing required of Baroque French opera specialization, bringing a complete command of vocal and movement gesture to this difficult role.
Ms. Asselin’s Créuse was both sensitive and beautiful, a welcome light lyric instrument audiences love to hear. Her final scene in the poisoned dress, given to her initially as a diplomatic premise at Jason’s suggestion, but now spitefully laced by a vengeful Medea, is the perfect unexpected reversal, and Ms. Asselin acts it perfectly, rousing herself with a final splurge of adrenalin to leap into her lover Jason’s arms only to die after a passionate moment, their marriage unfulfilled. It was typical dramatic convention, whether found in either Greek or French tragedy, and Mr. Pynkoski estimated its stage value well. A good director can make a good singer sound even better and Ms. Asselin sounded perfect in both her performances.
But, perhaps most striking of all for me was that I could not get the dancing out of my mind after both shows, nor could I stop thinking about its extended choreographed constructions built into the second half of all five acts. Ms. Lajeunesse Zingg left me awestruck at her creative power, attention to detail and the intensity of her imagination to put together fascinating sequence after sequence of dance. It all worked consummately with the music. How fulfilling it was to finally see those many choruses set with the proper in-laid, stylistically appropriate, French ballets de cours in every one of those splendid divertissements.
It was, in actuality, a completely overwhelming experience. I have seen long ballets within operas many times but nothing quite like this viewing, and on an intimate stage too, with one masterfully choreographed piece following another in diverse contrast, opulent movements of exquisite control exhibited by both sauteurs and danseurs, ranging from the virtuoso acrobatic to the refined délicatesses of carefully controlled, French courtly musculature.
The perfect embodiment of that aesthetic was principle dancer Jeremy Nasmith (former second soloist with the National Ballet), who was not merely an incredible sauteur in the best of the French acrobatic tradition, but an astonishingly beautiful, lifelong Baroque danceur who has trained with Ms. Lajeunesse Zingg most of his life. His Act I divertissement was stunning, not only with épée but in his refinement of attitude, muscular control, detail with even the smallest fleuret and stock pas de bourrée all the way to arabesques of graceful arch and exquisite form, highlighting Michael Le Gouffe’s lovely Corinthian, dark emerald costumes. He also landed an jump upstage centre that began apparently from the wings stage left, as if he appeared from nowhere, landed perfectly, and froze in place so as to allow us to take in the moment as both abstract and seemingly athletically improbable. Brilliant moment …..
Mr. Nasmith is also Fight Captain and along with Fight Director Jennifer Parr, the irresistible combination of dance and staged swordplay had its way with the audience, making battle into a gracious act of duelling balletic grace for all six male dancers (Edward Tracz, Tyler Gledhill, Michael Spendlove, Jeremy Nasmith, Kevin Law and Eric da Silva), accompanied by a sweetened martial D-trumpet when conspicuously tuned downward into Baroque pitch produced superbly beautiful effects in each performance by Tim Will.
And that two-toned cape dance that followed was an exquisite cap-off to an impressive Act I Rondeau pour les Corinthiens, complete with an ensuing, fully-worked out suite in 3/2 time (a ballet metre meant to inspire diverse variation), demanding something new, fresh, interesting in the use of space, for both men and women. It was a labour of love only a skilled choreographer and historian such as Ms. Lajeunesse Zingg could deliver with sustained effect of wave after overwhelming wave of brilliant dance after brilliant dance.
The result was a stunning catharsis — Act I culminated in the single most impressive demonstration of how all the arts are meant to come together to create a stunning, speech-negating response that beggars written description. In a flash, I finally knew with fullest realization what early French opera was supposed to be about — what enormous potential the art form truly held — intellectually, viscerally, emotionally. It is a moment I shall never forget.
If the Act I divertissements were bold, the Act II Passecaille (in three-step) was equally compelling but for completely different reasons.
In this scene, Jesse Blumberg delivers his very best as the suitor Oronte, seeking the hand of Créuse. He attempts to sway her from Jason, first with words and song explicating his admirable devotion, and then follows it up by inviting forth some sumptuous dance with castanets (which I now recall is quite possible and period-correct). He does his sweet best, and even though he doesn’t succeed, the dances surely ought to have convinced her as they did me.
But Créuse must marry Jason, and therefore the dances also served to underscore the dramatic tension of all three singers on stage making eyes at each other to see who would win her heart. Here, the dance does double duty, typical of French Passecaille tradition, in which a set of quasi-variations follows the theme, prolonging the staged action while using dance and gesture to also depict the inner worlds of the singers.
With Mr. Pynkoski’s skilled direction, the Passecaille, itself a ground-bass dance (though not a faithful one) served as underlay of Jason and Oronte’s rivalry, and captured the separation of would-be lovers Créuse and Jason perfectly. It was another impressive moment where, without dance married equally to music, we would have lost central elements to the story’s intrigue. It is only one of many occasions in which Opera Atelier demonstrated how important early French opera related its narratives through both music and dance albeit on equivalent footing, and not with one outshining the other as we so often see in other opera productions. If the two are not equal, we lose the impact of a carefully constructed aesthetic conceived long ago that can remain trapped in the past, or just simply musicalized into something unidimensionally inadequate. We often only think of singing as the most important element of opera, but if you want to know how the singing is composed, look no further than to movement, gesture, and rhythm. Dance is not mere divertissement: it is the lifeblood of French opera in this period.
Moreover it was common at the court of Louis, and afterward, that dance coincide with chorus. When we listen to choruses in these operas, dancing typically occurs in the latter half of each act, with the provision that dance never occur when soloists sing, only when choruses do. Choruses are not mere offstage commentary (situated to the right of the audience in the box seats near stage left). Rather, in this realization, they are often cast as the musical power and refinement behind the movement itself.
And there was still more. When Medea summons up the spirits of the damned from the river Styx in Act III (“Noires filles du Styx”), dancers in black unitards appear in diverse combinations and stagings each suiting the action to the drama well amid some creative set design from Gerard Gauci. Or, how about the end of Act IV with dancers each performing a pas de deux in the phantom scene where Créon’s guards are put under Medea’s spell. When the women appear in beautiful Sylphides-like white dresses (another stroke of Mr. LeGouffe’s exquisite costume designs) to attract the men away, the series of panels developed into some of the most elegant of the performance, rivalled only by the entrée that began Act I and the Sarabande that ended it. There was even one section where singers and dancers interacted together and for once, were not separated but performed a pas de deux. (And, I believe even the dancers sang at another point).
I could go on. The women’s dresses, opulent and beautiful, the trio in Act I, the love duets, the power of the chorus, the grace of each entrance, the instrumentalists, the sets and lighting, the economy of means to say so much with so little — it all added up to an experience of such completeness, an artistic totality that one typically can only dream about, or could scarcely imagine coming true.
There are only four performances remaining until April 29th but if the truth be known, were it not for the fact I have to head out of town, I would have bought tickets to every one of those four remaining shows to avail myself of such a rare opportunity to learn of an art form practised long ago, one with an acutely aesthetic resplendence here resurrected not as mere museum piece, but as a living monument to what it once meant to live all the arts as a singular ecstatic entity, unifying mind, body, and spirit