Edmonton Opera Orphée+ Edmonton Audiences Applaud Ivany’s “expansive approach to programming”

by | Feb 2, 2023 | Featured, Reviews

Edmonton Opera’s Artistic Director, Joel Ivany, founder of Toronto’s innovative opera company Against the Grain (AtG), has brought one of his successful experiments in melding old opera with modern production options and narrative flexibility to his prairie audience, and judging from the response at the opening January 28 in the Northern Jubilee Auditorium, he’s on his way toward winning their approval with his expansive approach to programming. This opening drew a larger crowd than the company’s Tosca in the fall, he said on Facebook.

Orphée+ was first presented in Columbus, OH and Toronto in April 2018, and again in Banff that July, where Ivany also wears the hat of Artistic Director of the Banff Centre’s Opera program. Edmonton saw the fourth iteration of this contemporary staging of the 1859 Berlioz version of Gluck’s 1774 Orphée et Eurydice, which Ivany directed.

The Edmonton production maintained the compelling theatricality of the previous runs’ dramatic lighting and projections (Noah Feaver and S. Katy Tucker, respectively). The lighting effects were crucial to the atmospheric shifts. Tucker’s set was framed by two walls with small, jagged protrusions similar to those on an indoor climbing wall. Depending on the scene, several draped scrims hung down, where projections could add colour and context to the simple operatic plot unfolding upon the stage. The side walls also featured setting projections at times.

All four mountings have featured a small contingent of musicians, 15 members of the Edmonton Symphony with additional colours from an electric guitarist (Ryan Davidson) and keyboardist (Frances Thielmann) and computer-generated sound effects in the latest version. The musicians were led by Toronto-based conductor Sandra Horst.

The Edmonton audience saw a more modest use of the dancers, though. The promotional lure for the original productions was the phrase “an electronic, baroque burlesque descent into hell.” The costuming for the demons was originally risqué, vivaciously burlesque; costume designer Brianna Kolybaba’s furies were pretty much covered up. She went with grotesque over revealing. The dancers, choreographed by Nicole von Arx, performed their several roles in a modern idiom, as opposed to Gluck’s original balletic style. They played the roles of mourners with grief-stricken Orphée in Act one, draped in burka-like red fabric, harassing demons blocking the hero’s passage to the underworld in Act two, and decorous escorts for Eurydice’s reunion with Orphée in Act three. They helped fill the large stage with ensemble energy, otherwise limited in this essentially three-hander. Much of the ninety minutes found only one or two of the principals commanding the space with their singing alone.

Countertenor Siman Chung has been Orphée in every production. He has everything a countertenor can bring to a role—the warmth and odd other-worldliness of the high tessitura for a male singer, and the power to project passion with volume to spare. His many melismatic runs he executed with impeccable precision and genuine artistic flair.

Canadian coloratura soprano Sharleen Joynt was a new Eurydice. Ivany’s wife, soprano Miriam Khalil, a founding member of AtG, sang the role in Banff; Mireille Asselin sang her in Toronto. Joynt, dressed in a white, wedding-type gown (she died just after the couple were married) appears in the flesh in Acts three and four, but an enormous image of her, suggesting her disembodied existence in Hades, was effectively projected on the back wall earlier in the show. Joynt has a light soprano voice, but she projected her conflicting emotions excellently, at first her quiet joy at Orphée’s plan to return her to the world above, and then her impatience and desperation when her husband cannot reassure her that he wants her, for he’s been ordered to avoid eye contact with her as they ascend out of hell. Their duet in Act four, “Fortune ennemie”, had all the poignancy and disappointment the lovers had come to before the ending, which Ivany has played both ways in his take on Gluck and the myth. In Banff, Eurydice returned to the underworld after Ophée laid eyes on her. For Edmonton, he chose the original happy ending, where thanks to the intervening Amour, who sent Ophée on his mission to begin with, Orphée does not commit suicide, Eurydice is revived, and the couple returns to their mortal life anew.

The soprano singing Amour in these last two stagings was a revelation to Ivany, when he needed a cast replacement for Banff. He found soprano Etta Fung online singing the Queen of the Night aria while rotating and flipping herself about between suspended strips of fabric. Amour, depicted as a lighter-than-air spirit of mediation and romantic success, brought her aerial acrobatics to this production as well. Dressed in Valentine-red gymnast’s leotard, Fung in Act one climbed the aerial silks and sang her instructions and encouragement to the grieving widower, suspended at various angles, including upside down. The audience in Banff had giggled a little seeing this “plus” feature of the production. Edmonton’s audience gave her vigorous applause after she had descended to the stage. They clearly loved the conceit of the ‘flying’ Cupid, and the exertions of climbing into position and ‘floating’ above the action had no impact on Fung’s clear, insistent delivery.

One other “plus” feature of the production was the thoroughly contemporary presentation of the minimal chorus. In their first appearance, the four singers’ faces were projected the several column-like scrims that were at various times adorned the stage, and at others out of sight. Later in the show, they appeared inconspicuously in the wings.

Ivany is putting his stamp on his new company, and Edmonton audiences seem ready to give him more than the benefit of the doubt.

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JAN 28 to FEB 3 2023
Conductor Sandra Horst
Director Joel Ivany
Choreographer Nicole von Arx
Costume Designer Brianna Kolybaba
Scenery and Video Designer S. Katy Tucker
Lighting Designer Noah Feaver

Orphée Siman Chung
Eurydice Sharleen Joynt
Amour Etta Fung

Justin Calvadores
Eowynn Enquist
Isak Enquist
Sarah Formosa
Ted Littlemore
Eleanor van Veen
Evan Webb
Shana Wolfe

Joseph Chambrinho
Douglas Graham
Krista Paton
Alla Salakhova

Sean Haid
Brenna Metzmeier

with members of
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Guitar Ryan Davidson
Keyboard Frances Thielmann

Stage Manager Gina Moe

Assistant Stage Manager Anna Davidson

Assistant Stage Manager Hunter Luth

Apprentice Stage Manager Kahlan Oosterveld


Bill Rankin

Bill Rankin has been a classical music and opera writer for two decades. His reviews and articles have appeared in the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail, Gramophone, Opera Canada, La Scena, the American Record Guide and Classical Voice North America. He lives in Edmonton.



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