It’s hard to remember an Opera Atelier production that has come with as much anticipation, and out of as much perseverance, as its latest creation, Something Rich & Strange.
The pastiche-style program of arias and ballets, both baroque and brand new, was originally slated for October, opening the Toronto opera company’s 35th anniversary season at Koerner Hall. It was to be shown to a small audience of 50, in accordance with the COVID-19 restrictions at the time, and livestreamed to a larger audience online.
After Toronto’s coronavirus case numbers grew and city restrictions tightened, Something Rich & Strange was bumped to December and, wisely, became a filmed, prerecorded work designed for an entirely digital audience.
It’s remarkable that Opera Atelier, the company known for putting up 17th- and 18th-century works with remarkable safeguarding of performance practices of the time, has been one of the quickest to adapt to online offerings. Back in May, it offered Together/Apart, a quick-and-dirty digital gala akin to what New York’s Metropolitan Opera did around the same time. And with Something Rich & Strange, it’s now clear the company of preservation is also an adaptive one.
Aside from the medium – film, and with prerecorded music by the cast and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra – Something Rich & Strange is entirely on-brand for Opera Atelier. It balances the spotlight between singers, dancers and design by long-time OA staple Gerard Gauci.
The music is sourced from cornerstone works of baroque opera – Lully’s Platée, Handel’s Semele, Purcell’s King Arthur – and two new works by violinist and composer Edwin Huizinga. Even in the hands of videographer Marcel Canzona, we still get OA’s wonderfully analog aesthetic – the paper creases in the angel character’s wings, the hand-painted character of Gauci’s set design. It’s an honest adaptation from stage to screen.
The story, loose and non-linear as it is, is about glimpses of perfection: a perfect love, a perfect day, a perfect body. We get a hint of backstory in the black-and-white opening scene, which also holds almost all of the production’s most creatively interesting moments: an angel (Measha Brueggergosman) recounts the time a virgin experienced real ecstasy, and with the bar set extraordinarily high, we act the voyeur for each cast member’s own encounter with perfection.
The faces that enjoy the most screen time are among OA’s preferred group of artists: soprano Mireille Asselin, tenor Colin Ainsworth, dancer Tyler Gledhill and Brueggergosman, the company’s newly announced artist-in-residence.
Amid Canada’s opera scene, Opera Atelier perhaps has the closest thing to a cult following in its devoted audience, and Something Rich & Strange is created with those listeners in mind. It’s a thrill to have a closeup view of Asselin and marvel at her acting skills, apparently honed for screen as well as stage. The same can be said for Gledhill, who hurls his body with grace, a not-so-subtle nod to physical perfection. And there’s something utterly fierce about Brueggergosman’s expository angel, a force in cornrows and great jewellery, clutching at a unicorn’s horn.
What’s lacking here, by definition, is tension. Scene after scene of perfection offer little room for conflict, for good to triumph over evil. And so, rather than a fully-fleshed story, even the kind that can come out of a particularly clever pastiche, Something Rich & Strange is about voyeurism.
In this medium, we get to see the artists from a much closer distance than we were ever meant to. Yet more to the point, we’re seeing the fantasies and personal favourites of OA co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Handycam closeups of the Atelier Ballet dancers, intimate moments to make you blush, reference after reference to Greek myth and Louis XIV – these are the things that Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg find perfect.
Something Rich & Strange livestreams on Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25.
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