“To revive Orphée in preference to Orfeo is tantamount to admitting that our powers of concentration and appreciation are no better than the butterfly minded Parisians of the eighteenth century,” chides Sir John Eliot Gardiner in his 1981 essay on Gluck’s Orfeo in the Cambridge Opera Handbook. Despite the stern warning from the tireless advocate for original instruments, counter-tenors-where-required and near-tiresome “faithfulness to the printed page” (there’s so much more lurking in the musical subtext, particularly the implications of the seemingly innocent shades of harmony—be they shifts of mode, first-inversion pull or the mystery of the augmented 6th), Opera Atelier gaily popped the champagne and poured out an Orphée that pleases the eye, engages the ear but doesn’t travel deep enough to touch the human spirit in this timeless tale of love at any cost.
With so many involved, the artistic trust (director, Marshall Pynkoski; choreographer Jeannette Zingg; conductor Andrew Parrott) opted to place the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in the Elgin Theatre’s mezzanine stalls in order to leave enough space on stage for the large ballet components from the sixteen artists of Atelier Ballet. That solved the logistical challenge but paid the price in close-but-no-cigar orchestra/chorus ensemble, despite the feverish gesticulations from Parrott, who, on those choral occasions, would do well to leave his talented band (Tafelmusik) to themselves and devote his entire attention to the well-blended choristers. The improvement in overall togetherness in general and soft consonants in particular would be forever welcome.
Gerard Gauci’s sets are a pleasure from every angle. The flames of hell are nicely balanced by the sequined night backdrop that resonates intriguingly with Orpheus’ (Colin Ainsworth) Act I vest. The hung cameo of Eurydice (Peggy Kriha Dye) silently brings her into the action from the start, but nothing can top Amor’s (Jennie Such) descent on a cloud, complete with Olympic flame symbolism (yet her semi-butch garb seems as if she just slipped out of a rehearsal of The Marriage of Figaro instead of a confab with the gods).
Variety of movement comes via Zingg’s occasional use of soft pointe shoes, which adds an extra bit of classicism, although the men’s unanimity of form improves considerably in their more accustomed slippers. The final ballet sequence is a constant pleasure, yielding the finest flow of the night from both stage and pit. The sheer fabrics—brilliant yellow to all-manner of pastels—are at one with the joyful score, which even calls for tympani to lift the spirits (literal and metaphorical) into the heavens. Not as successful was the earlier “Blessed Spirits,” where the famous flute line opted to eschew the changes of register miracle of discovery for a too-pedestrian-by-half, “just so” delivery.
As Orpheus, Ainsworth commanded the stage at every turn but needed nearly two acts before allowing his voice to relax with the lines and banish the early tightness. No doubt aided and abetted by Pynkoski, the Guelph native would do well to further investigate the very fine art of internalizing grief and pain. His broad gestures, hoisting the lyre like the Holy Grail (yet letting it into the hands of the Furies as he sings his way past their obstruction)didn’t even work as a symbol. And what’s up with the anguished lover chasing a nubile, sculpted angel? Seems the Parisian butterflies swarmed this production in search of the cheap laugh.
The closing duets with Kriha Dye produced the finest music-making of the rejiggered masterpiece. Her clean, clear soprano was the perfect foil for Ainsworth’s angst and a model of how like-minded phrasing can forgive any previous sins. As the heavenly host, Such glowed through her interventions with poise and unerring pitch, yet Parrott didn’t rein in his charges, leaving her middle register lines largely unheard.
As a bonbon view of the doomed lovers, this production works on many levels (not least of which is the closing Wheel of Fortune tribute, which removes any notion of fine art, replacing it with a big finish more in tune with vaudeville). No worries: the audience drank it up: most can’t wait for another generous helping of opera for the masses. JWR