The opening storm sequence of Gluck’s last major opera immediately rekindled a memory of Nature’s glory captured on film—Act of God, Jennifer Baichwal’s brilliant documentary on the savage power of lightning’and, coincidentally, seen in the same venue as HotDocs 2009 opened just last spring (cross-reference below).
Lighting designer Kevin Fraser’s manmade flashes were no less effective in illuminating the cast, choir and sets for librettist Nicolas-François Guillard’s tale of revenge-seeking gods playing with the hearts and minds of mortals in Greece and Scythia even as a devinely becalmed wind and the Trojan War fuelled much of the narrative from afar.
With goblins and their admirers walking the nearby streets (and not a few in the opulent aisles of the Elgin Theatre), establishing an atmosphere for the truly fantastic couldn’t have found a more sympathetic date to launch Opera Atelier’s revisit of the 1779 work (last produced in 2003).
As also befits the eve of ghouls unleashed in search of fun, drama and confectionary sustenance, the performance was a delectable mix of tricks and treats for all persuasions and tastes.
The biggest trick was for conductor Andrew Parrott to rein in the sprawling musical real estate before him. With the generous stage beautifully set and draped thanks to Gerard Gauci’s eye-delighting designs, the fine cast moving confidently about it and the effusively energetic Artists of Atelier Ballet all requiring near-constant attention to keep Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography and Marshall Pynkoski’s vision/direction moving forward, necessarily placing some of the Tafelmusik Orchestra in the main-floor boxes and all of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir a level above, the chances for musical precision and clarity were greatly reduced. Parrott’s small gestures and slight baton were frequently unable to keep the large forces under the same musical tent. Too often the chorus went its own way and, for example, when the brief, if lively, Act III punctuation from the trombones finally found its groove they’d run out of notes.
Incredibly, magically, the closing minuet of the second act saw the veteran maestro add to his wonderful ability of intuitively finding the “right” tempi by also letting the music flow with a single pulse (rather than the too-common, phrase-restrictive three beats) for each measure. In many ways this was the finest music making of the night.
The principals offered treats of high calibre to the artistic loot bag. Peggy Kriha Dye’s compelling, flexible voice and subtle visage combined to create a convincingly troubled, later redeemed, Iphigénie. As her constant companion/confidante, Cassandra Warner was a marvel of vocal dexterity, demonstrating the vital ability of knowing when to step back and let her colleagues shine. The inseparable pair of friends (with the “same desires …”), tenors Kresimir Spicer and Thomas MacLeay were well-matched on all fronts, bringing Gluck’s emotionally charged arias and duets to glorious life and almost certain death. Pynkoski’s decision to leave no doubt whatever (via numerous clutches, embraces and hovering—if never-landed—kisses) that Oreste and Pylade were devotees of the love that dare not speak its name—in that ancient era, Friends of Diana’s—has, in 2009, lost its shockability and greatly weakened the do-they/don’t-they? question that all productions have, in one way or another, been forced to “wrestle” with. This trick lacked any notion of treat and might have benefitted from a more discreet (and, intriguingly, far more sexual) approach of someone like Derek Jarman (cross-reference below).
As to the dancers, the men outshone (the swordplay dutifully on time if a tad cautious) and outmanoeuvred the women (unanimity in the arms, landings and turns as elusive as true compassion from the heavens).
By journey’s end (replete with a marvellous “vision” of Diana—Ambur Braid doing stellar work in her brief appearance—and all of the family secrets exposed, not least of which being Oreste’s matricide to avenge his father’s murder at his mother’s hands …) there was much crimson in the temple (the bare-skin Furies lit red in a manner that recalled Michael Levine’s/David Finn’s fire-on-cloth technique in Götterdämmerung, cross-reference below) the music, overall, was curiously bloodless. On a night celebrating all manner of horrific, scary acts, there was a howling shortage of Gluck’s untapped harmonic/modal tension and variety in the phrasing that must await the next reincarnation of opera’s long-exiled historical gem. JWR