Opera Atelier took over the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum Thursday night, bringing to Toronto the hour of music and baroque dance that the company first staged in France at the Palace of Versailles in May, 2017. Titled Harmonia Sacra, the program of works by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is essentially a condensed showcase of everything Opera Atelier offers in their twice-a-season, full-length productions: baroque-style music and dance, and dramatic staging rooted in the practice of baroque gesture – physicality meant to complement and enhance the meaning of the text.
Opera Atelier has revived baroque opera, staying impressively true to style. In Toronto – a city with a relatively short operatic history – that level of stylistic integrity is a risk, a gamble that Opera Atelier co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have waged each year since the company's 1983 inception. Theirs is an aesthetic that is immediately recognizable, with the kind of specificity that earns itself a love-it-or-hate-it response from Canadian audiences.
In their natural habitat at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, Opera Atelier's productions can seem to resemble moving frescoes, tableaus of beautiful bodies against ornately decorated sets that often pay homage to the time of two-dimensional backdrops painted to look three-dimensional. In the past, I can admit to feeling a sense of being held at arm's length by Opera Atelier. Their productions can appear styled at the expense of telling real stories, as though we're charged with brushing up on our history rather than experiencing something that is (apparently) affective.
Yet Harmonia Sacra was something entirely different. The airy museum gallery was transformed into a large runway stage that gave almost everyone an intimate vantage point; the performers were pared down to a small-but-mighty orchestra of players from Tafelmusik, honest and communicative singers Jesse Blumberg and Mireille Asselin, and evocative dancers Tyler Gledhill, Juri Hiraoka and Zingg herself.
Without embellished sets or costumes, and with the performers close enough to become real human beings, Harmonia Sacra was like an unveiling of something inspired. We were witness to real chamber music, all that wordless communication among the compact orchestra. Rather than the exaggerated expression of baroque gesture from the singers and dancers, we could see the subtleties in their eyes. It was the same high-quality product that Opera Atelier consistently offers, but in a presentation that seemed relaxed, willing to be even the tiniest bit fallible.
Amid the (almost) all-Purcell program – a composer whose music is so much jazzier than we often imagine – there was a major highlight in Opera Atelier's first commission, Inception, for baroque violin and contemporary dancer. Violinist/composer Edwin Huizinga and dancer/choreographer Tyler Gledhill created a stillness among the audience. Their work was no simple juxtaposition of old and new, but something else entirely. It seemed a beautiful, promising evolution of Opera Atelier's aesthetic, and the impressed hush among the audience spoke loudly.
I'll admit, I prefer Opera Atelier up close, which bodes well for their upcoming lunchtime concert on March 29 as part of the Canadian Opera Company's free concert series in the Four Seasons Centre's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. And perhaps seeing this bit of simplicity will change how I perceive their next fully staged production, Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, which runs April 19-28 at the Elgin Theatre (operaatelier.com).