By Colin Eatock
TORONTO — For three decades, opera lovers here have been feasting on Opera Atelier’s period-based productions of Baroque and Classical opera. The latest OA offering – a remount of the company’s 2008 production of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio – drew a near-capacity audience to Toronto’s Elgin Theatre on opening night, Oct. 26. But beyond Canada’s borders, OA isn’t nearly as well-known as it ought to be. And there are good reasons why the opera world should know about this unique little company.
For starters, there aren’t many opera companies that seriously ask the question, “How would this piece have been done in the composer’s lifetime?,” and then take the answers as a starting-point for a modern production. OA’s quest for period sensibility (what used to be called “authenticity”) extends to most aspects of production: not just historically appropriate vocal style and musical instruments, but also period costumes, scenery, dance, and stage direction.
Even more remarkably, Opera Atelier is a mom-and-pop operation, co-directed by the married team of Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. This gives OA something that most opera companies today don’t have – a strong and distinctive house style. Moreover, the fact that both Pynkoski and Lajeunesse-Zingg are trained dancers (rather than musicians, or other sorts of people who are “supposed” to run opera companies) places a special emphasis on movement and spectacle.
Pynkoski and Lajeunesse-Zingg are resourceful. They hire Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra as their pit band. They’ve found an ideal performance venue in the Elgin, a century-old Lowe’s theatre, restored to gilded splendor in 1989. And happily, they’ve found an ideal collaborator in set designer Gerard Gauci, whose sumptuous trompe l’oeil scenery adorns every OA production.
The company also has a knack for selecting young, energetic singer-actors. True to OA’s well-established ways, its Abduction was a youthful romp, featuring a Mozart-appropriate cast singing in German and speaking in English.
Outstanding among the half-dozen principals was Ambur Braid as Konstanze. This British Columbia-born soprano is a recent graduate of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio training program, and turned heads as Adele in the COC’s Die Fledermaus last year. Throughout this Abduction, Braid went from strength to strength, with brilliant coloratura embellishments to her arias and breath-control that was simply astonishing. And she readily found the dramatic center of her role: her bespectacled Konstanze was high-minded, strong-willed, and a bit of a snob.
As the maid Blonde, Canadian soprano Carla Huhtanen clearly had a lot of fun with her comic role. Hers is not the warmest of voices, sometimes tending to shrillness, but she impressed with her vocal agility and stratospheric range.
As stage director, Pynkoski clearly aimed to emphasize the contrasts between the European and Turkish characters. In his hands, Lawrence Wiliford’s Belmonte and Adam Fisher’s Pedrillo were sincere yet timid: This was made clear in a pantomime scene during the overture, when the two men prove themselves utterly feckless as pirates make off with their sweethearts. Wiliford was consistently pleasing, and his sweet, smooth, lyrical voice was well balanced with Braid. Fisher bounced around the stage with engaging energy. He was also sweet and lyrical, but not always smooth. At times he seemed to struggle projecting his voice into the theatre.
The manly Turks were portrayed by bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan and bass Gustav Andreassen. Sullivan was a success as Pasha Selim, with an aggressive edge in his voice and a stance that made him a force to be reckoned with. Andreassen was alternately stern and buffoonish, but sometimes his intonation was insecure, and in a few crucial moments he lost support in his lower range.
Music Director David Fallis, who often leads Opera Atelier performances, brought an endearing fluidity and a keen sense of balance to Mozart’s score. In his hands, the Act II quartet was a highlight of the evening.
And as in most Opera Atelier productions, there was plenty of dance, inserted at every conceivable moment. On this occasion, Lajeunesse-Zingg’s choreography took on an exotically Eastern flavor.
Subsequent performances of Opera Atelier’s The Abduction From the Seraglio take place at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1 and 2. For information, click here.
Colin Eatock is a composer and writer based in Toronto. He is a contributor to various publications in Canada, the U.S. and the UK. His most recent book, Remembering Glenn Gould, was released by Penumbra Press last year.