Opera Atelier’s Médée

There are umpteen operas based more or less closely on the legends surrounding Medea, Jason, the Golden Fleece and the events afterwards in Corinth.  Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1693 version to a libretto by Corneille deals with the events in Corinth subsequent to Jason and Medea’s return with the fleece.  The plot, in essentials, is simplicity itself.  Jason is scheming to secure his future, and that of his children, by ditching Médée and marrying the king’s daughter Créuse.  Médée is not having this and wreaks revenge on just about everybody else in the piece.  Somehow Charpentier and Corneille string this out over five acts and the obligatory prologue glorifying Louis XIV, wisely omitted by director Marshall Pynkowski.

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Dramatically it’s rather an odd work.  For three acts Médée seems to have forgotten that she’s a powerful sorceress and mopes around like a dopey 15 year old while everybody else is plotting to get her out of the way.  Even without the prologue this takes an hour and three quarters, partly because of a subplot concerning Oronte, prince of Argos, who is also after Créuse. This is a long time to sit through predictable and largely formulaic French baroque opéra-ballet, with the usual OA choreography complete with castanets, or finger cymbals or whatever they are.  The second half is shorter, tighter and more dramatic with plenty of on and off stage slaughter and a truly grisly ending.

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Opera Atelier’s production is, I think, one of their better recent efforts.  In a sense this is because they are on home ground.  Oddly enough a French baroque aesthetic seems to work best with a French baroque piece.  But, besides that, there was a certain boldness to this production that I found appealing.  The sets are somewhat more abstracted than in many OA productions.  It’s still all painted backdrops and while some recalled, say, Watteau, others seemed closer almost to the aesthetic of Lawren Harris’ WW2 paintings. There were also scenes that allowed for rather effectively dramatic lighting and visual effects.  There was even a bit of innovation in the choreography.  In one number a couple of the girls danced with the guys in leotards and with a much more athletic vocabulary than the usual hoops and heels numbers.

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Performances too were pretty good.  Peggy Kriha Dye was a rich toned and idiomatic Médée well matched by Colin Ainsworth in the haut-contre role of Jason.  Mireille Asselin as Créuse gave a performance that rather matched the two paced nature of the drama.  Before the interval she didn’t have much to do but sit around looking decorative (which she does very well) but after she did a super job of portraying the mental and physical disintegration of her character while remaining vocally within the required classical bounds.  Newcomer Jesse Bloomberg as Oronte was effective enough.  He was vocally solid and did the running around with nose in the air baroque thing rather well.  Stephen Hegedus as Créon gave a solid and suitably moustache twirling version of the scheming patriarch.  Supporting roles were all fine and the choir, singing as usual from the stage boxes, sounded really good.  David Fallis, truly a veteran now of this aesthetic got a solid performance out of Tafelmusik.  Props to percussionist Ed Reifel for injecting some real drama at times.

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Bottom line, this is Opera Atelier doing what they do best and the dramatic second half of the show pretty much makes up for the very long and rather slow burn first half.  Fans will get what they expect, newcomers will get a good introduction to the company’s work but those looking for new directions from OA won’t find them.

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Charpentier’s Médée runs at the Elgin Theatre until April 29th.

Photo credits: Bruce Zinger

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