Review: Opera Atelier’s Acteon and Pygmalion: making an antiquated tradition exciting and captivating for modern opera and ballet enthusiasts

Specialized in opera, ballet and theatre from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Canadian company Opera Atelier has achieved widespread acclaim for its commitment to making baroque theatre more accessible to current audiences. The company achieves this goal by staging original productions of period pieces that preserve an aesthetic that would have been appealing to audiences contemporaneous with the featured work. The challenge for the now 33-year-old company lies in making an antiquated tradition exciting and captivating for modern opera and ballet enthusiasts.

For the fall production of Opera Atelier’s 2018/19 season, company director and co-founder Marshall Pynkoski chose a double bill of the short French operas Actéon by Marc Antoine Charpentier and Pygmalion by Jean-Philippe Rameau. After a run in the company’s hometown of Toronto, the production stopped in Chicago for two nights at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance between November 15th and 16th, before making its way to the Royal Opera House at Versailles, where it will be performed from November 30th to December 2nd.

Even before the music begins, a quick inspection of the Harris Theater’s orchestra pit reveals a studied and effective approach to era authenticity.  The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra accompanies the production’s singers and dancers on period instruments, including the viola da gamba, recorder, theorbo and harpsichord.

Colin Ainsworth, Artists of Atelier in Charpentier's Acteon
Colin Ainsworth, Artists of Atelier in Charpentier’s Acteon

As the curtain opens on Actéon, we discover beautifully painted backdrops, and although the subject matter comes from Greek mythology, we discover both singers and dancers draped in beautifully tailored costumes appropriate to the 17th-century French court, an appropriation of antiquity’s classics that was common during the period.

It is with the entrance of Diana’s nymphs that we glimpse ballet’s origins. Ballerinas in ankle-length gowns hop from foot to foot in elegant yet heavily structured and repetitive dances that leave no doubt that ballet was born of the dances popular in Italian and French royal courts. The dances are simple and more focused on the precision of steps and the ginger and graceful pointing of feet and positioning of arms than on the impressive feats of dexterity, elevation and endurance that we’ve come to expect of ballet.  

A brief, yet beautiful rupture with this rigid and prosaic style of dance comes once Actéon is turned into a stag. A splendidly antler crowned, nearly nude dancer sprints and leaps across the stage with abandon, marking one of the most visually fulfilling moments of the evening.

Opera Atelier in Rameau's Pygmalion
Opera Atelier in Rameau’s Pygmalion

In the second piece, Pygmalion, a work that premiered in 1748 – 64 years after the premiere of the opening work Actéon – we see that the costuming remains the same.  In other words, we are still not allowed to see the ballerina’s legs, and the choreography is still firmly rooted in court dances, such as the Sarabande, Gavotte and Rigaudon, among others.  

However, the dances are slightly more exuberant, and we see an introduction of comedic aspects with a pair of harlequins.  In the director’s notes, Pynkoski explains that by Louis XV’s reign in the 18th century “hedonism and joie de vivre” had taken over Versailles, standing in stark contrast with the more “religious and conservative” court of Louis XIV in the 17th century, justifying the change of tone from one opera-ballet to the other.

Between these two works, Opera Atelier presents Inception, composed and performed by violinist Edwin Huizinga and choreographed and danced by Tyler Gledhill. As company choreographer and co-founder Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg writes, “The inclusion of a fully contemporary dance to contemporary music for Eros [personified by Gledhill] to appear as the controlling force in the lives of the human characters brings together old and new in a new dimension of integration: that of blending dances from different time periods to create a unified dramatic experience.”

The sandwiching of contemporary styles between these baroque works seems oddly out of place, breaking with the dominant aesthetic and goals of the overarching production, but this is ultimately forgivable, as it brings a respite from the less dynamic, more homogenous early ballet.  

Opera Atelier excels at taking audiences back in time. This makes their work fascinating for anyone interested in seeing live how classical music and dance have evolved. It may not titillate contemporary audiences in ways that modern works do, but Opera Atelier’s contribution is invaluable to artistic memory and historical invigoration.  

Reviewed at Harris Theater for Music and Dance on November 16th