Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice straddles two worlds. When the German composer wrote it in 1762, Jean-Phillippe Rameau's Baroque operas were the toast of Europe. When Gluck revised it in 1774, Mozart's Figaro was a dozen years away, The Magic Flute just over 15.
The genius of Orpheus is it forges the bridge that leads from the stylized, formal, heavy world of Rameau to the spontaneous, informal world of Mozart and beyond. The genius of the current Opera Atelier production of Orpheus is it approaches this iconic work from its past, placing it within a Baroque tradition, but maintains its revolutionary and modern elan throughout. A miracle of stylistic legerdemain.
The modernism of Orpheus comes from the orchestra pit, in a score of deep feeling, human to the core – full of tenderness, anger, peace – a complete range of contemporary emotional states. (And brilliantly played, as always, by David Fallis and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, using an orchestration made in the 19th century by Hector Berlioz.) The age-old story of Orpheus, using his human talent to try to cheat death and restore love, is powerfully sketched out in this remarkable music.
On stage, however, director Marshall Pynkoski presents the ancient, stylized, "old-fashioned" techniques of Baroque stagecraft – highly exaggerated poses or choreography, rather than naturalism in movement; tableaux rather than spontaneously developing scenes. But the two worlds, of Baroque staging and more modern music, mesh perfectly. Partly it's because Pynkoski's three singers bring real life to their vocal performances, but it's mainly because this director has, over the years, taught us that the visual language of Baroque opera is a very emotional tongue – as emotional as the naturalistic one we now speak. Just different. This Orpheus proved that once again.
Mireille Lebel makes a lithe, powerful Orpheus, with an enormous amount of stage time in this almost chamber opera. When Berlioz rescored Orpheus, he recast the lead from a high male voice to a mezzo-soprano low female register. Sometimes Lebel's projection got lost in the lowest portion of her voice, but her middle and higher ranges were brilliant, pure and powerful. If I have one quibble with her performance, it was she almost overdid Pynkoski's stylized stage movement. The attitudes associated with Baroque opera are exaggerated, but they must reek with emotion as well.
Peggy Kriha Dye as Eurydice meshes a powerful soprano with a fine moving stage presence and Meghan Lindsay is a spritely, humorous Amour. (Gluck cheats and gives the tragic myth a happy ending, as Amour reunites the lovers rather than seeing them eternally separated.)
Special mention must be made of Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg's choreography. Her dances are always a central part of the Opera Atelier experience, but here she has outdone herself. Ballet is crucial to the opera's structure and she has created wonderful moments, melding a balletic style from the 19th century with the open, athletic movement of Baroque dance. As with the rest of the production, the choreography melds the two worlds Gluck commingled in his original production with great skill.
At the very end of the opera, as the dancers celebrate the reunification of Orpheus and Eurydice, Pynkoski and Zingg have their dancers spill out onto the stage with placards that alternately spell "L'Amour Triomphe," "Immortal Hero" and, finally, "OA [Opera Atelier] Orpheus!" It was a cheeky final gesture from a company that is feeling its oats these days (a standing ovation at Milan's La Scala, such as the one Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg received last month for their Lucio Silla, will do that for you).
Opera Atelier productions have always been ambitious and rewarding. Now they are polished, confident, and secure as well – a powerfully appealing combination.
Orpheus and Eurydice continues until April 18. Performance schedule available online at operaatelier.com