Opera Atelier/Something Rich & Strange, directed by Marshall Pynkoski, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, conducted by David Fallis, Koerner Hall livestream, available Dec. 12 to June 1. Tickets here.
There is mostly good news, and a little not so good news, about Opera Atelier’s Something Rich & Strange. First of all, the company should be commended for rethinking their proposed season (The Magic Flute and Dido and Aeneas) and coming up with an original production as a replacement. Secondly, another kudos should be awarded because they found a way to involve a large cast during pandemic restrictions.
Let’s get my major complaint out of the way. Had we actually been in the theatre, there would have been surtitles, even for the English language (and singers’ iffy diction). Opera Atelier has always been very particular about this. While the company did provide the lyrics in their program download, it would have been so much more immediate to have the lyrics subtitled. The production was a film after all, and they could have been added in. Full access to the lyrics while they were being sung was a missing link for me.
The genesis for Something Rich & Strange came from a couple of places. One was Ariel’s song “Full fathom five” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 1, whose lyrics contain the title words. Another inspiration was Jean Cocteau’s 1930 avant-garde surrealist film The Blood of a Poet. What co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg were striving for in Something Rich & Strange was to weave together baroque theatre music that evoked the world of dreams, visions and the supernatural.
Guided by conductor David Fallis, they chose both songs and orchestral suites from the works of Matthew Locke, Henry Purcell, Jean-Philippe Rameau, George Frederic Handel and Jean-Baptiste Lully. There was also an original commission from Edwin Huizinga.
The production is beautiful, because everything that Opera Atelier does is beautiful, but as for the music hanging together, I’m not so sure. The scenario is a bit contrived. The jumping off point is an angel’s encounter with the Virgin, who represents perfection. The synopsis says that Something Rich & Strange is reaching towards perfection — a beauty so extraordinary, we can only approach it through the safety of sleep. Each singer and dancer emerge from this protective slumber to recount their encounter with perfection.
The character, Morpheus, the god of sleep (dancer Tyler Gledhill) was created to orchestrate dreams among the singers and dancers, and he is woven throughout. The lyrics of the songs are supposed to elicit various moods among the singers. I had trouble, however, linking some lyrics to the main theme of reaching for perfection, or even dreams. For example, how does the aria “Mi Lusinga il dolce affetto” from Handel’s Alcina connect? The lyrics describe the wavering of a lover, worrying about both being deceived by love, and abandoning the one he loves. While the opera Alcina itself deals with visions and dreams, this particular aria does not, taken out of context. Perhaps I’m being too linear.
On the other hand, even if I had trouble with the whole show hanging together thematically, baroque music that is exquisitely sung, danced and played (Tafelmusik), is a thoroughly boffo experience, which makes Something Rich & Strange a worthy enterprise. It was also gratifying to experience works from lesser-known repertoire like Purcell’s King Arthur and Oedipus.
Composer/violinist Edwin Huizinga’s original composition The Eye and Eye’s Delight, specifically commissioned for soprano Measha Brueggergosman, is a winner. The man can write baroque music, and at times the piece, filled with baroque conventions and ornamentation, sounded positively Monteverdian. Occasionally there were hints of modernisms in note sequences, but nonetheless, this aria fit in perfectly with the baroque masters.
The piece began the program and was set to a symbolist poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. The myth behind the song is that a deer in the woods gave birth to a unicorn after locking eyes with the purity of the Virgin. When the angel arrived for the Annunciation, he too locked eyes with the Virgin, and they both experienced terror. Brueggergosman has a ravishing voice and sang Huizinga’s piece in stunning fashion, caressing the words with great expression.
In fact, all the singers were excellent, although some had more to do than others. The one couple that were allowed to get up close and personal, soprano Mireille Asselin and tenor Christopher Enns, are married. Both are lovely singers with clear, bright voices. The always wonderful tenor Colin Ainsworth sang the Lully aria from Armide beautifully, but I kept thinking his Handel’s “Where’re you walk” from Semele was too low for his haute-contre voice.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan is a real find with a sparkling voice who exudes great personality in her singing. Soprano Cynthia Smithers was on hand to join Asselin in a seductive Purcell duet about two enchantresses from King Arthur. The seven dancers have baroque dance skills in their DA by now and always make for eye-candy viewing.
In terms of directing and choreography, Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg took great pains that the production not fall into formula. In other words, they wove singers and dancers into the space of the soloist, so we didn’t get a laundry list of, come in, sing your song, and leave. The stage picture was a well-integrated, albeit, socially distanced one, with the watchers, as it were, adding in an extra layer to context.
The young filmmaker Marcel Canzona was tasked with shooting Brueggergosman’s The Eye and Eye’s Delight, which showed real imagination with superimposing images and such, but I found the rest of the film to be on the pedestrian side, although editor Michael Hannan should be cited for weaving all the disparate parts together. Apparently, the sequences were shot separately according to Ontario’s pandemic restrictions, including pre-recording both the orchestra and the singers.
Gerard Gauci came up with a simple set featuring eye-catching, hand-painted projections and a two-sided staircase with a poppy field below the upper platform. Michelle Ramsay provided the moody lighting.
Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg are never going to let grass grow under their feet. They came up with an original production, showing that embracing digital is, as they say in their program notes, an exciting challenge and a genuine catalyst for creativity. I’m sure with each subsequent livestream, the camera work will be more innovative. With Something Rich & Strange, Opera Atelier has taken on the pandemic with a full-frontal attack.
Unfortunately, there is one further miscue I should mention. When the performance was over, there was loud applause which was apparently added after the fact. Now we know there was no audience. The applause should not be there. Let the show stand as a testament to the pandemic.
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