The last time Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Persée was presented at the L'Opéra Royale at Versailles, Marie Antoinette was in the audience. Only fitting, as the piece was being presented to celebrate her wedding to the future King of France, Louis XVI. The year was 1770.
This May, Persée will be performed again at Versailles for the first time in almost 250 years by a company that comes from a part of the world the French dismissed in 1770 as "quelques arpents de neige" or "a few acres of snow" – Toronto's world-renowned Opera Atelier.
This will be Opera Atelier's third production of Persée, not just a revival, but a production presented more or less the way it would have looked to the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette – in fact, more or less the way it would have looked to its composer in 1682.
But a lot has changed for Opera Atelier since its first Persée in 2000. Then, it was an up-and-coming baroque opera company in Toronto; today, Opera Atelier is the toast of Europe. Its production of Mozart's Lucio Silla was presented to great acclaim during the Salzburg Festival last summer. It will be going to Milan's famed La Scala in 2015.
Before Persée even opens in Versailles on May 23 (where it's already sold out), the company has been invited to return to the L'Opéra Royale to restage its production of Lully's Armide, an immense hit at Versailles two years ago. People are phoning them from San Francisco, Australia, all over Europe. After 30 years, the company and its founders, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, are finally overnight successes.
The "new" success of Opera Atelier and its deeply authentic style of baroque opera speaks to sweeping changes in the world of international opera. When Pynkoski thinks back to the company's early productions, he realizes he had a different attitude to the works he presented in those early pioneering days.
"When you're doing this sort of thing, you start with tremendous rigour. There was a sort of rigidity with us as we defined what the baroque style was. It wasn't just that we knew what we wanted to be – we knew what we didn't want to be. We were not going to be romantic; we were not going to be verismo. We didn't want people overly emotionally involved. It was to be about text, about delivery. We wanted to check the emotions, rein them in."
"But then you start to grow," Pynkoski adds, "once you've established what you are. You can allow people to go more deeply into the core of what it is you're presenting. And that, for us, is story-telling.
"Jean Cocteau once said that style is not the artistic bull's eye. Style is what you use to hit the artistic bull's eye. We have to constantly remember that we're doing this for an audience. So, while we're not trying to cultivate emotion today in our productions, we're no longer trying to stop it. We have much more emotionally engaged singers and dancers. We're there to make an audience feel – not watch, feel."
And, ironically, just as Opera Atelier was adding more depth to its authentic productions, there was a feeling among some opera audiences, especially in Europe, that the now "traditional" style of opera production in Europe – the high-concept, let's set La Bohème in a laundromat idea – was becoming a bit stale.
Marc Minkowski, the conductor and impresario who is Opera Atelier's mentor in Europe, turned to Zingg and Pynkoski just before their Salzburg production of an opera that was set, costumed and performed just as it might have been 250 years ago, and said, "You know, this is the most radical thing people have seen here for years."
Other commentators have called Opera Atelier's work "the new avant-garde." In truth, there's actually less separating the high-concept production style and the work of Opera Atelier than seems to be the case – both are attempts to revive the heart of long-ago masterpieces.
But there is a sense today that seeing productions of baroque and early classical operas as they were presented to their original audiences provides us with a needed and welcome insight into their meaning.
"I think we're in tune with the world today," muses Pynkoski. "Partly, it's just a cycle, but the world is moving toward narrative.
"We only produce stories we think are worth telling. And that were worth telling to those audiences of the 17th and 18th centuries. Those people knew so much about life that we don't know. They knew about pain – psychological and physical pain. Their lives were so much more tenuous than ours. You start to realize that this obsession they had with ordering the universe makes sense – it's an act of bravery, of people refusing to succumb to the incredible sadness of being human, the pain of being human.
"We know nothing of these things, or less of them, for sure – we learn about sacrifice and bravery in these operas," Pynkoski says.
Whether "the new avant-garde," or the polished, glittering gems of a bygone emotional and intellectual era, or both, the work of Opera Atelier, now beginning its fourth decade as a producing company, is heralded both at home and around the world.
Its success is part of a growing maturity Canada is experiencing as a net exporter, rather than mere importer, of world-class cultural products.