How apt that Opera Atelier has chosen to open its 30th anniversary season with its faultless Armide. Brought first to Toronto’s Elgin Theatre in 2012 when it also graced the Palace at Versaille, this is surely the piece that defines the vision and artistry of this remarkable company. As tonight’s performance amply demonstrated, with Opera Atelier, the old is always deliciously new.
Brought back to the stage is the ensemble that made it all happen through the years: Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide has a stunning dramatic presence that is almost Shakespearean. Channeling Juliet, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, her Armide is sweet, deadly, sexy and lost, all in one heady mix. Dye’s voice has rare power and the dynamism that makes it the perfect vehicle for the dramatic lyricism that this role demands. Beside her, Colin Ainsworth is perfection as the enchanted hero, Renaud. Ainsworth has an almost magical control of dynamics and has the ability to sing in near whispers that speak of desire and heartbreak. Together, Dye and Ainsworth set the stage on fire with a chemistry that is palpable and magnified by their equally stunning voices.
As the Nymphe des Eaux, and also playing Sidonie, Meghan Lindsay brings back the unearthly seduction that made her luminous Alcina wow audiences in 2014. Lindsay’s voice ripples like a clear stream, effortlessly gliding through passages that are technically extremely demanding. Daniel Belcher, as La Haine, delivered a hair-raising performance where the power of hatred seemed to make each note in his aria explode with rage. One could barely make out the melodic lines in this dramatic performance, but the effect was spellbinding.
Gerard Gauci’s incomparable set design makes this performance truly magical. Drawing inspiration from medieval illuminations and manuscripts, Gauci uses surprisingly traditional techniques to create a palimpsest-like feeling onstage where exquisite gilded motifs from persian miniatures magically “overwrite” Armide’s enchantments. Gauci points out that his choices are syncretic and reflective of the theme of this opera – the transcendental capacity of love to transform even the most hated other into the beloved. Behind the all the beauty, however, is a subtle acknowledgement of the importance of creating a lasting dialogue between our notions of East and West, particularly as they play out in the myths about hostile otherness so prevalent in media today.
Even as the stars strut their stuff, what really brings this performance home is the consistently fine ensemble work by the dancers of the Opera Atelier corps, and the deeply sensitive playing of the Tafelmusik Chamber Orchestra and Chorus under David Fallis. While we all shared in the joke as Olivier Laquerre and Aaron Ferguson, as the Chevaliers Ubalde and Danois, squealed with terror at beholding the monsters of hell in the orchestral pit, these musicians were the final touch of magic in what I can only describe as a perfect evening at the opera.
Of deep importance is the fact that tonight’s audience is full of very young people. These were young students from Toronto high schools who listened rapt through a five act tragic opera. That in itself must be the greatest testament to Opera Atelier’s capacity to speak to all ages from across the ages.
For our international readers, this landmark performance will be part of Opera Atelier’s recurring engagement at the Palace of Versailles. Don’t miss this rare treat!