We have been blessed with great operatic performances in Toronto this fall. Sondra Radvanovsky's Norma. Alice Coote's Ariodante.
Well, add another one to the list, one to value just as highly. And that is Wallis Giunta's Dido, the lead character in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which Opera Atelier opened on Thursday night at the Elgin Theatre. Giunta was superb – dramatic, mesmerizing, with an expressive mezzo voice, fully in command of her character every moment she was on stage.
It didn't hurt her that Purcell wrote for her one of the great affecting moments in all of music – When I Am Laid in Earth?, Dido's Lament, as it is called, the last tragic moment in the opera, based on one of the great love stories of all antiquity, that of the Queen of Carthage betrayed and abandoned by her Trojan lover. Giunta inhabited this music and its accompanying drama perfectly – with restraint when needed, emotion when necessary, fully in command of its musical and passionate truth.
And Giunta's performance was the highlight of a wonderfully fine and affecting Opera Atelier production of Purcell's masterpiece. Opera Atelier has had Dido in its repertoire almost from its very beginnings, more than 30 years ago, but over the years, director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have been refining their vision of baroque opera – slimming it down, making it more immediate, simpler, more direct.
The costumes for this Dido are less ornate, with the characters, especially the dancers, wrapped up in bright primary colours. Hair is more natural – baroque wigs are gone. And Pynkoski's direction is more visceral and gut-wrenching. The world of baroque theatrical gesturing, at its best, is at once highly artificial and completely natural and Giunta especially brought the two – artifice and nature – into perfect resonance. Not all her colleagues could follow her lead with as much dedication, but the overall effect of this highly stylized but strangely immediate theatre was very satisfying.
Purcells's early "opera" (written in the 1680s, we think) is really more a masque than an opera proper, meaning there is as much dancing and movement and acting on stage (Pynkoski has added a spoken prologue) as there is singing. It's really Wagner's idea of a total art work two centuries in advance.
Consequently, Lajeunesse Zingg's choreography, always a major part of every Opera Atelier production, was even more prominent here. And it was an elegant wonder – whether of court dancers serenading Dido, frenetic witches conjuring up spells, sailors dancing a hornpipe (one with a ship on his head), or nymphs (male and female) whirling through the mist. All the movement provided a wonderful counterpoint to the production's fine musical performances, both in the pit and onstage, and made of the evening, as was the point, a lovely banquet for all the senses.
Because of its deeply tragic end, we think of Dido and Aeneas as a dark, sombre affair; it is anything but. There is a great deal of romance and lighthearted beauty in the piece, a set of witches that Pynkoski and crew have decided to veer toward the comic (with great effect), courtiers and gods.
And the performances that Pynkowski urged from his cast added to the variety and full-bodied nature of this work. Those witches were great – Laura Pudwell, as the chief conjurer, sort of the Bette Midler character in Hocus Pocus, with Ellen McAteer and Karine White as her whirling, devilish, irrepressible posse. Christopher Enns was a suffering and noble Aeneas, although he didn't quite inhabit the baroque stagecraft of his role as effectively as Giunta. Meghan Lindsay was a fine Belinda, Dido's sister and confidant. Cory Knight was full of life as the Sailor with the ship on his head.
But if Giunta had to share the spotlight on Thursday for top billing, it was with the composer, Henry Purcell. Purcells's score for Dido is so modern in its way, so dissonant for its time, so completely passionate and affecting. He taught English music, if not all music, how emotion could be portrayed in an operatic form, and there are innumerable moments of shocking power.
As always, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, under David Fallis, tore into the score, energetically bringing it to life. And special notice must be made of the Toronto Children's Chorus Choral Scholars, who sang the chorus parts – and there were a lot of them – Thursday evening. This was a choir, basically of teenagers, who sang well beyond their years, investing their parts with verve, understanding, subtlety and power. They were quite a revelation.
Opera Atelier, now beginning its fourth decade as an ensemble, and cementing an international reputation, always brings something worthwhile and different to the stage with each new production. If Wallis Giunta's star is the brightest in the sky of this Dido and Aeneas, it is set off by many other wondrous sights and sounds in the evening glow of this production, a tribute to a team of artists who keep pushing themselves every time they approach their art.