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Dido and Aeneas/Actéon

Opera Atelier

At the Elgin Theatre

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In Toronto on Sunday

Almost 20 years ago, two dancers with a passion for Baroque theatre staged a performance of two acts of Monteverdi's Orfeo in the Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Little could Marshall Pynkoski or Jeannette Zingg realize in 1986 that their efforts would begin a glorious series of productions of their Opera Atelier, which is presenting two 17th-century mini-operas currently at Toronto's Elgin Theatre -- Charpentier's Actéon and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

We critics are supposed to criticize, but there is very little to say in a critical vein about these two superb offerings, other than to marvel how beautifully and effectively Opera Atelier has managed to remake the art of the past with perfect authenticity, yet have it pulse with a contemporary power. If your experience is anything like mine, you will watch and listen to these operas as though you had been magically transported to the Versailles of Louis XIV, or the London of the 17th century, but without leaving your emotional moorings in the present. The success of Opera Atelier lies in its ability to be authentic and contemporary at exactly the same moment.

Part of this combination comes from the superb stagecraft of the Pynkoski-Zingg duo, with their stylized sets, dances and overall eye for Baroque detail. Some of it comes from the dazzling costumes of Dora Rust-D'Eye, surely one of the world's most accomplished costume designers.

But increasingly, it is the musical side of the Opera Atelier equation that is providing more and more of the artistic satisfaction in these productions. Under David Fallis's spirited direction, the Tafelmusik Orchestra provided a powerful and subtle musical universe to power both these productions, reminding us in the doing that the genius of such 17-century composers as Charpentier and Purcell were every bit as able to portray deep emotion in their music as their 18th- and 19th-century colleagues.

And the musicianship on stage was equally impressive. Either coincidentally, or likely because of their existence, Opera Atelier has had the blessing of some exceptional Canadian singers with which to cast their productions, and these two mini-operas are no exception. Tenor Colin Ainsworth continued his ascendancy into the stardom stratosphere with his portrayal of Actéon in the first production -- powerful, lyrical, emotional -- and a vivacious sailor in the second. Monica Whicher was a solid and believable Dido in the Purcell, portraying both the Queen's anguish and her pride with artistic skill. Nathalie Paulin was an effective Diana in Actéon, and a sad and lovely Belinda in Dido, and Curtis Sullivan a proud Aeneas. And when artists as accomplished as Laura Pudwell, Vilma Indra Vitols and Jennie Such are portraying your secondary characters, you know your production has depth indeed. And if you need anyone to dance on your grave (or anyone else's), give Jennie Such a call. A more delightful witch the Toronto stage has seldom seen.

Maybe it was the contrast between the sad, drizzly, cold Toronto afternoon outside, and the warm, expansive, dazzling world inside, but if there was a more perfect way to spend two Toronto hours this weekend, I wouldn't know where to find them. As it heads into its 20th-anniversary season, Opera Atelier does so from a position of great strength.

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Dido and Aeneas/Actéon continues at Toronto's Elgin Theatre on Friday and Saturday (416-872-5555).

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