Opera Atelier presents Orpheus and Eurydice

Composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto written by Pierre-Louis Moline 

Directed by Marshall Pynkoski

Choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg

Set design by Gerard Gauci

Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell

Featuring: Colin Ainsworth, Mireille Asselin, Anna-Julia David and Artists of the Atelier Ballet

David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Chamber Orchestra and Choir with members of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale

At the Elgin Theatre through November 1

In 1773, when Christoph Gluck found a patron in Paris to support his work he was overjoyed. Since writing his opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, a decade earlier with a libretto by Calzabighi, he had undergone profound re-thinking of what an opera should be. He was tired of the showy musical tropes used by contemporary composers hoping for a hit aria by way of a constantly repeated ritornello that either foreshadows or reminds us of the melody line constantly throughout the score. He rebelled against the overworked roulade and the composer who never met a cadenza that he didn’t like. He preferred lyricism over bombast.

The fact that his patron in Paris was none other than the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, made it possible for him to exit the brittle confines of the Vienna school who had been cool to his opera a decade earlier and begin to rethink it anew. This “newness” was clearly on display opening night at the Elgin Theatre when Colin Ainsworth repeated his performance as Orpheus that so delighted audiences in 2007 when he originally performed the role in OA’s North American premiere of the work.  In an elegant and understated performance, Ainsworth gives a bravura performance worthy of transportation to the Elysian Fields.

Equally so, Mireille Asselin as Eurydice has the exquisite presence and purity of delivery in her performance that makes the love story a truly believable one. No easy task within this consciously stylized framing of the piece.

But it is the Artists of the Atelier Ballet under the direction of Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg who bring the whole production together from the scenes set in the Elysian Fields to the Underworld of Hades. Zingg is note perfect while being supported so sumptuously by the set and lighting designs by Gerard Gauci and Kimberly Purtell.

My only criticism here regards the overuse of the fog machine when Orpheus descends to the gates of Hell. Some members in the audience began to cough and I can’t imagine the effect was a great favorite with the singers and dancers either. We get it, Hell is smokey (so they say) but we can feel that by way of backlighting and haze projections. 

There is one additional element that should be mentioned here that was critical to the work’s successful premiere at the Paris Opera in 1774, and that is the libretto written by the dramatist and poet, Pierre-Louis Moline. Moline was an interesting cultural figure of the day and an inspired choice to fulfill the role of librettist in the re-working of an earlier version by Calzabigi. 

Being known and well liked by Parisian audiences (he remained popular through the French Revolution) Moline was able to provide a work that was sympathetic to the reformist visions that Gluck held about the opera form and that they both articulated in the form of a manifesto that was widely published at the time.

The result was a new kind of opera that did not sacrifice composition but that did concentrate on a full orchestral score throughout and the use of dancers that supported the story line and advanced the dramatic action. The recitatives in Orpheus and Eurydice comprise much more of the score than do chorus numbers. They are also supported by the full orchestra, unlike say Mozart in The Marriage of Figaro who had absolutely no interest in composing music for the recitatives and probably sub-contracted them out leaving the singers with accompaniment by a harpsichord perhaps aided by a cello if they were lucky.

Moline provided lyrics that were based in the modalities of the day and that could be performed as sung-through poetry. Gluck welcomed and respected the work of his colleague as an equal in the creation of the opera. A good thing to remember the next time you read about how the sins of a new musical theatre work are all laid at the feet of the librettist.

As fate would have it, I’m just now reading the concluding chapters of Stefan Zweig’s poignant 570 page biography of Marie Antoinette. When the former Hapsburg princess and now, by marriage of convenience, the Queen of France, commissioned Gluck to write Orpheus and Eurydice she was 19 years old and an accomplished musician herself by way of a singing voice and her ability to play piano and harp. In a program note by conductor David Fallis it is pointed out that the antique harp in the orchestra pit so artfully played by Julia Seager-Scott, is a close replica of the instrument that would have been found at the Palace of Versailles.

It must have been a great relief for the young Queen to become a patron of the arts and it marked the high point of her popularity. Although some purists might have bristled at the upbeat and thoroughly anachronistic ending that director Marshall Pynkoski so puckishly orchestrates to punctuate the opera’s finale, L’triomphe, with the use of the dancers and the chorus, I cannot help but think that Marie Antoinette would have been delighted to see such a happy ending.

Amour (played with an abundance of empathy by the wonderful soprano, Anna-Julia David) rewards Orpheus and restores life to Eurydice. Amour is such a useful character throughout the opera both by way of action and metaphor. Amour brings a message that is simple and very contemporary: love is better than hate and even at the eleventh hour it is sometimes possible to find a pathway out of a gated hell.

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