Opera Atelier/Handel’s The Resurrection (La Resurrezione), streaming until June 10. Tickets available online.
Opera Atelier’s latest isolation-defeating balm showed up yesterday evening online in the form of a film shot inside Toronto’s historic Renaissance-inspired St. Lawrence Hall, our much-awaited compensation for the company’s pandemic-delayed performance of Handel’s La Resurrezione in April 2020.
Elegant, tasteful, stylish, dramatic, shot from multiple angles through smoke and haze, some primary colours and softened hues featuring frequent punctuations of restrained balletic movement, this splendid two-act 90-minute film adaptation will prove to be another feather in the cap of co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg.
Handel’s oratorio shone brightest when viewed as a recreation of an original work for an Easter Sunday chapel devotional that could double just as well in the opera house. And La Resurrezion is just that — a sacred opera garbed in an apologetics lesson in Catholic theology on the resurrection, but more concretely from the performance perspective, it would be best seen as a dramatization consisting of intense characterization. The humility of a devout Mary Magdalene (Meghan Lindsay), the grief of Mary Cleophas (Alison McHardy), the unvarnished enthusiasm of the faithful St. John the Evangelist (Colin Ainsworth) might at first glance come off to us as two-dimensional portrayals, especially in our era where audiences more often prefer psychological representation veering well beyond the static archetypes of the past and into present-day portrayals of diluted human virtue rife with abundant human failing.
But to answer that was Douglas Williams’ Lucifer, a perfect slice of Milton’s devilish character taken straight from the famous “war debate” in Paradise Lost, Book II. Williams’ characterization satisfied on all levels. Although at once humorously stereotypical in his arrogant self-confidence, Williams could easily elide his brazen pride to his character’s psychological blindness of his own limitations. Even at the end of the work, when it dawns on Lucifer that he may lose his cosmic battle, the music becomes pitying and Williams’ portrayal almost sympathetic as he is forced to face the inevitable. After all, it was thought that Milton’s intent was to make Lucifer to be poetically and aesthetically the most interesting character throughout the epic, not because he truly was so, but because he could very much seem that way, inviting us to reside within his delusions of self-made power. Williams really grasped this in his performance and both Marcel Canzona’s filming and Marshall Pynkoski’s direction capitalized supremely on these poetic conceits. The result was not a two-dimensional retelling but a three-dimensional art-work that conveyed more beyond its moments of mid-Baroque showy virtuosity.
The stylistic effect of Lucifer’s dialogues and arias on the other characterizations was contagious, and right after his early introduction in the Good Friday portion of the work, arias from all the characters seemed to take on an extra new urgency as if to anticipate some future event they could not quite foretell. Meghan Lindsay’s “Ferma l’ali, e sui miei lumi” lamenting the crucifixion, was one of many poignant moments she infused into Mary Magdalene’s character from the outset. Equally gripping, and often outright owning both stage and screen, were Alison McHardy’s richly contralto interpretations of Handel’s boldest lyrical inspirations, especially “Piangete, sì, piangete” set to double recorder obbligati (Alison Melville and Grégoire Jeay) midway through Act I, a classic weeping aria set low in G minor and one of the most glorious pieces I have ever heard her sing.
And so it was clear, early and often, that musical-dramatic style was everything in this opera-ballet video creation. When the work opened with a supreme feat of coloratura from soprano Carla Huhtanen, portraying the Angel, it wasn’t only Huhtanen’s singing that impressed but also a young and ambitious 23-year-old Handel who seemed to be putting himself on display as well. Handel was determined to show his tremendous compositional breadth within the newly minted “opera seria” subgenre in turn-of-the-century Italy, and in particular that he could show his patrons he was the equal to any of the Italian masters, especially the great Alessandro Scarlatti. For an oratorio, La Resurrezione in the hands of Opera Atelier’s creative reimagining stood best as a diverse masterpiece of everything that was interesting and inventive about Italian opera 300 years ago: orchestration, lyricism, breathtaking coloratura, and dramatic representation we might find dating back to the earliest opera-ballets of Lully to the modern times Handel had enjoyed as a young man at the centre of the operatic world.
Tafelmusik’s orchestra under Elisa Citterio’s robust direction distinguished itself in translating one of Handel’s more powerful, innovative and dramatic scores from this period of his creative output, often sounding like there were more musicians playing than the 22 who comprised the ensemble.
Huhtanen’s Angel was the perfect vocal counterpart to Tyler Gledhill’s red-winged victorious archangel, a kind of recurring motive throughout, even in the dark times of Act I’s Good Friday depictions, perhaps only dispelled briefly by Colin Ainsworth’s gentle pastoral arias. But Huhtanen was at her best when she sparred gleefully with Williams’ Lucifer character. And directing Williams’ T-shirted Lucifer to be no match for her was a great moment, especially when watching Huhtanen’s head-shaking glance toward what seemed to her to be yet another diabolical rant with a “like I haven’t heard this before throughout all eternity” dismissive wave of her hand.
The ballets were beautiful as always because in this case they amiably moved past the technical proficiency of a divertissement, typical of what we might find toward the end of Handel’s career, and into a more integrated dramatic device. Whether pulling aside the drapes around the grave to reveal an incandescent light, or as direct representation, such as when Dominic Who and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg danced elegantly as proxies for the risen Christ and his mother Mary at the celebratory conclusion, the effect of dance was always to extract the spiritual pieces of a symbolic puzzle now largely hidden from view three centuries later. Perhaps most moving of all was the calling of souls to rise in the finale to Act I (“Il Nume vincitor”) with dancers wearing masks for social distancing measures and as symbolic coverings of veiled spirits in a murky afterlife. The effect was moving and invigorating all at once against the backdrop of the spritely Bourrée that would become the last movement of the D major suite from Handel’s Water Music.
But, in this production, the artistic arbiter between the eternal debate voiced sharply and so well between Huhtanen and Williams’ characters would turn out to be dance itself. If Gledhill’s sublime characterizations were not there, then we would have missed the subduing of Lucifer’s surfeit of emotion with the very opposite, namely those gracious movements represented so well by the Artists of Atelier Ballet. Best of all, Gledhill is a consummate performer in all situations because he dances with a natural humility in service of the roles he plays. And, in the end it is Gledhill who helps to win us over with a peaceful onstage demeanour borne from a meditative, quietly disciplined movement that proxies most effectively for what the word “resurrection” might mean to us in our difficult times.
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