If you’re lucky, angels arrive with joyful news; if you’re not, they come as harbingers of doom.
It’s perhaps not surprising these moderators between heaven and humanity have kept showing up in performing artists’ work in a period that feels like both the ending and the beginning of something, where optimism and despair were in constant competition even before COVID-19.
Angels’ Atlas, choreographer Crystal Pite’s latest astonishing work set amid a smoky cosmos, was one of the last pieces programmed on stage at the National Ballet of Canada before the pandemic (and will return there next month). Paradise Lost, playwright Erin Shields’s delicious dramatization of John Milton’s epic poem about the most famous of the fallen angels, was a Stratford Festival hit that was being programmed at theatres across Canada before the pandemic interceded.
Now, Opera Atelier has sent Angel fluttering out into the world, a filmed work described as “a multidisciplinary storytelling event.” It had its premiere on a big screen at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Thursday, and is available to stream on personal small screens until Nov. 12.
“Multidisciplinary storytelling event” ultimately seems like this company that specializes in baroque opera and ballet’s fancy way of saying “music video playlist.”
The song and dance numbers staged in theatrical environments are filmed in black and white by Marcel Canzona. Co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski is credited as the stage director, while co-artistic director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg is credited on the choreography (with the exception of one segment featuring choreographer/dancer Tyler Gledhill) and David Fallis conducts.
Each section of Angel comes at the viewer preceded by a theme in all-caps filling the screen: SEPARATION, CREATION, INCARNATION. Most of these frame new or nearly new compositions for baroque instruments by Canadian composer and violinist Edwin Huizinga (with Christopher Bagan). He’s set to music the words of two poets born 2½ centuries apart who gravitated toward the mystical: Milton and the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who is freshly and beautifully translated here by Grace Andreacchi).
Angel begins almost as a full-on operatic adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tenor Colin Ainsworth begins the story as narrator, before bass-baritone Douglas Williams’s charismatic and tortured Lucifer enters, wrestling with his fallen fate before he decides that it is “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
(Why must devils and bad guys in general have deep voices in music theatre? I appreciated that in Shields’s version of Paradise Lost, she switched things up by giving us a middle-aged female Lucifer.)
After Lucifer exits, Angel shifts from the words of Milton to those of Rilke and poems on subjects such as Adam and Eve. We also move from action or story, to observation or rumination as well-known soprano Measha Brueggergosman and then Ainsworth sing about the first man and woman as if they are frozen in time.
Simple she stands at the cathedral’s cliff edge,
close by the glassy rose holding the apple
in the apple-pose guilty-guiltless once and
for all time of that growing thing she bore.
After this pause for reflection, Angel never regains any dramatic momentum – and the true episodic nature of the project becomes more clear.
The singing and music is high calibre throughout, the recording of it without flaw. From a visual point of view, the film’s highlights include a section called The Eye and Eye’s Delight, involving Brueggergosman – wearing angel wings and clutching a staff-like unicorn horn – singing a Rilke poem, and two dancers from Atelier Ballet reaching for one another on a stage so black it looks as if they are floating in space.
Another highlight: a piece called Inception that features Huizinga playing the violin and performing a pas de deux with a dancer. I was reminded, pleasantly, of those musician/actor stagings of musical theatre that were in vogue for a while. (Both The Eye and Eye’s Delight and Inception were also part of a previous streamed event by Opera Atelier called Something Rich & Strange, although the latter has been reshot for Angel.)
I imagine long-time fans of Opera Atelier will find Angel heavenly. I was not entirely sure what to think about the artistic project of putting old words to new music so heavily inspired by old music and played on old instrumentation – and then filming the whole thing for streaming on the internet.
I personally enjoy creative anachronism in the substance of my art, not just in its delivery. So my ear was most captivated in Angel by musical excerpts from neo-classical composer Max Richter’s looping “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. (Perhaps you could call Richter a baroque decomposer?) I downloaded a recording of the whole thing to my iPhone after and have been listening to it while writing this review.
While I had hoped to see Angel on the large screen on Thursday, a cold meant I had to stay home in case it turned out to be you-know-what.
Which means I had the benefit of watching it with subtitles and also the ability to rewind – which I did on a couple of occasions trying to figure out how one section connected to the next and which character was which. Perhaps the use of the word “storytelling” in Opera Atelier’s description of Angel had me expecting something a little more cohesive than the mixed bill delivered.