Opera Atelier Something Rich & Strange
Tyler Gledhill and Edwin Huizinga in Opera Atelier's Something Rich & Strange. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Despite repeated coronavirus lockdowns, social distancing rules and a climate of apprehension, Opera Atelier and its fearless co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg were determined to continue their 35th season regardless. They made sweet-tasting lemonade from the sourest of lemons on Dec. 12th with the company’s debut livestream of the widely anticipated genre piece Something Rich & Strange, a pastiche of Baroque arias in an exquisitely refined balletic backdrop, fluidly cast somewhere between the theatrical and the ecstatic.  

After initial plans to debut in OA’s usual end-of-October slot, it became clear due to second-wave infections in Toronto that the work could not be live-staged. Therefore, it had to be moved to December and recast as digital content for the company’s subscribers across two continents. The result was a sleek sidestep into a merged opera/dance-on-film genre, with all performers socially-distanced. Singers with orchestra pre-recorded their work in a different acoustic at Trinity St-Paul Church, while acting and moving to playback in Koerner Hall in Toronto, ON. 

Pre-recorded tracks liberated the artistic directors and designer Gerard Gauci to experiment in genre work, and to create an evening of inner poise and meditative perspective on love, life, art and eros. OA balanced some of the finest onstage tension in classic dance-on-film genre work I have seen in a long time. 

With supreme editing and camera/videography savvy, up-and-coming digital director Marcel Canzona put together the true gem of the evening’s proceedings–-a flawless view of how opera and dance can be filmed, sung, acted and rhetoricalized.

The final result was the desired artistic objective of all opera/dance-on-digital projects of our time, namely, an ably synthesized series of uninterrupted powerful performances placing new clothes on Baroque works. Thoughtfully shot and scrupulously composed, the result was a thoroughly cross-disciplinary artistic creation.

Of course, this is what OA has always been about: the step to an opera/dance-on-digital platform was only natural. 

The music reached broadly into many sub-genre types including arias from Handel’s Alcina and Semele, Purcell’s King Arthur and The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, Rameau’s Platée, Lully’s Armide and–of special interest–two developing works by violinist Edwin Huizinga who has become a composer-to-watch on the Toronto landscape.

Enns in Opera Atelier's Something Rich & Strange
Mireille Asselin and Chris Enns in Opera Atelier’s Something Rich & Strange. Photo: Bruce Zinger

The pastiche does not follow any conventional narrative nor is it story-ballet in any definable sense, and that suits just fine. In its abstraction, we find some of the forward-looking modernist tinges that often graced classically Grecified Baroque opera-ballet. Poetic sensibilities are wrapped in rhetorical gesture, presented with an innermost need to understand the self through movement.

The opening served these goals extraordinarily well with one of my enduringly favourite singers, Measha Brueggergosman, now the company’s artist-in-residence, announcing the evening’s fare as a kind of early Baroque prologue, an angel reciting in Rilkean creamy verse against a simple backdrop of suspended, delicately pleated wings. Brueggergosman was at her height of powerful composure here, overlaid with images of the Artists of the Opera Atelier Ballet fading in and out, all blended into an aesthetic composition using slightly raised shots and semi-cross hatchings angled to chiaroscuro lighting. Huizinga’s inventive and entirely fresh harmonic take on Baroque archetypes unerringly led the way. It was a tremendous introduction—the acme of Baroque synthesis where early opera meets dance squarely to form a remarkable digital marriage. 

That was only the first of many sublime moments. Several others involved dancer/choreographer Tyler Gledhill, who brought effortless natural talent to each of his movements in his co-creation “Inception” with violinst/composer Huizinga. This work has come a long way through many changes, and is intended as one panel of a larger collaboration in process. This version of “Inception”, the third I have seen, is excellent. Gledhill, whether in traditional French balletic step or weaving in more modern interpretations, is a master of this fusion genre. It helps that Huizinga is a consummate performer and clear thinker about how this work can maintain its improvisatory feel without descending into Baroque cliché. 

Perhaps the most unmissable moment in the entire evening from the purest vantage point of singing, movement and Baroque poetic rhetoric, was a stunning performance by rising star mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan in her presentation of “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” from Handel’s Alcina.

If you missed it, stay tuned: she will likely return to this company’s future slate of Baroque opera plans in coming seasons with her rich, low mezzo-tone, a surfeit of harmonic colour ensconced in a maturity of musicality and voice that sings with shocking core strength from her entire body. Her tone is endowed with a rainbow of possibility in each phrase, demonstrating aptly that this young singer is here to stay with regular and lasting appeal on the opera stage here and abroad. Her opening A-section of “Mi lusinga” was overwhelming. When she sings next, you won’t want to miss it.

Opera Atelier Something Rich & Strange
Tyler Gledhill and Mireille Asselin in Opera Atelier’s Something Rich & Strange. Photo Bruce Zinger

In addition, there was plenty of screen time to connect with OA regulars Mireille Asselin (soprano) and Colin Ainsworth (tenor) for whom videography allowed much-appreciated close-up views through their acting windows. Another remarkable talent was Cynthia Smithers, whose pleasant duet with Asselin from Lully’s Armide was a highlight.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was not seen in the video, but it felt as though they were right there in the acoustic with the onstage performers. Best of all, when they played it sounded as though they were dancing along with every beat and step of each articulation. Their rhythm lived every pulse, and we did too, dancing in our seats, no longer watching diffidently behind cold computers but living onstage with Opera Atelier’s every moment, action and word.

Tickets and more information for Opera Atelier’s Something Rich & Strange can be found here.