Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic director of Toronto's Opera Atelier, is fond of quoting Jean Cocteau on the question of style in art. In so many words, Cocteau said that style is something you aim with, not something you aim for. And the degree to which Pynkoski has imbibed Cocteau's dictum is in evidence in his current production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Medea, which opened Saturday night at the Elgin Theatre. Medea may be the most glorious production that Opera Atelier has ever mounted, stylish, yes, but more importantly, gripping, powerful, satisfying.
Because if style is not your goal in art, what is? In Pynkoski's hands, it is storytelling, and the parade of deeply felt human emotion that resonates in an audience, whether the piece of art that occasions that response was made yesterday, or written in 1693, like Charpentier's suberb baroque opera. Medea outlines a long arc of a story, based on Euripides, of revenge and vengeance, a loop that begins with betrayed love and ends with horrible death and destruction. It is an arc we can all share and travel on only if every step along the way is anticipated, realized and positioned perfectly, in an emotional journey of intensity and depth.
The perfection of Medea begins with Pynkoski's direction, simple and spare, but immensely physical and powerful at the same time. Characters are always grabbing each other, either pulling each other close, or shoving each other away, to make space for themselves and their emotions, a perfect counterpoint to the story told in the music. At one point near the opera's end, Jason, the finder of the Golden Fleece and Medea's betrayer, is comforting the dying Créuse, his new lover (Medea, in a paroxysm of jealousy, has provided Créuse with a poisoned dress). In a last burst of life, Créuse fantastically leaps into Jason's arms, and they embrace. It is a gesture that is outrageous, too big for life and perfect for the moment. Style to aim with.
And the choreography that Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Opera Atelier's co-artistic director, has provided for Medea is equally creative. Dance is central to Opera Atelier's aesthetic, but here Zingg has outdone herself, providing dances full of swordplay at one moment, replete with joy and harmony at another, full of hell's sprites and spirits at yet another. (Part of the arc that Medea the character traverses is from the human to the demonic.) Whereas sometimes dance provides respite and interlude in an Opera Atelier production, here it is central to the storytelling.
But the opera truly succeeds in its large ambition because of the performers on stage, perhaps the most thrilling cast Opera Atelier has ever assembled. Peggy Kriha Dye is superb as the title character, her beautifully controlled soprano never faltering over a long evening's work, letting us see what the sorceress Medea will become all the way through her performance, so that when Medea unleashes her vengeance at opera's end, we're emotionally prepared for it. Colin Ainsworth, an Opera Atelier favourite, is at his best playing Medea's Jason as an arrogant, vain, powerful, love-racked but ultimately cynical hero, allowing Ainsworth's lovely tenor voice to take on new colourings and depths. Stephen Hegedus is a powerful and captivating Créon, King of Corinth, where Medea and Jason seek refuge. In every appearance, he demands attention. Mireille Asselin is sweet and lovely as Créuse, Créon's daughter, and the "other woman," a subtler foil to Kriha Dye's whirlwind of a Medea. Jesse Blumberg is solid and convincing as Oronte, another hero vying for Créuse's attentions. Every voice on stage was beautifully modulated and clarion, from the largest role to the smallest, including the always fine Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.
David Fallis and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as always, were the pit orchestra for Medea (with Tafelmusik's new music director, Elisa Citterio, acting as concertmaster for the band), and they played beautifully. Charpentier's score for the three-hour-plus opera is a revelation, immensely modern in its way, moving from recitative to accompanied recitative to full-blown aria almost seamlessly, providing a musical foundation of deep emotion and quiet beauty upon which the entire production rests.
Opera Atelier is taking Medea to France in May, after its run at the Elgin Theatre ends, and it will be fascinating to see how French audiences react to this modern version of one of their own cultural masterpieces. Because Opera Atelier's Medea is neither an "authentic" style-obsessed revival of 300-year-old performing traditions, nor an updated version of a treasured classic, torn out of its original context to make a modern artistic statement. It's something in between – a 21st-century production, steeped in the spirit of the baroque, that reminds us that the human condition and human emotions have not changed that much over centuries – the essential basis for all culture.
Medea runs in Toronto through April 29 (operaatelier.com).