The last time Toronto's Opera Atelier performed Armide in the Royal Chapel of Versailles in France, demand for tickets was so intense that Marshall Pynkoski, the company's artistic co-director, couldn't get a seat in the hall. Instead, he brought a small folding chair into the orchestra pit to watch the show. He left for a second to attend to a last-minute production detail, and when he returned, someone else was sitting in the chair – the spot had just been sold as a last-minute rush seat.
Pynkoski watched his production sitting on the stairs leading into the pit.
Perhaps because of typical Canadian modesty, we might not understand how impressive Opera Atelier's success has been in Europe. Now in its fourth decade, the company's stylish productions primarily of the music theatre of the 17th- and 18th-century baroque stage have appeared in Versailles, Salzburg and at Milan's La Scala, and are in demand throughout the continent. In a European world dominated by Regietheater and deconstructive interpretations of classic operas, Opera Atelier is unique. It has forged its own theatrical world by channelling the musical and theatrical traditions of centuries past, remaining true to the spirit and style of the original, but infusing them with a modern sensibility at the same time. There is nothing like its productions anywhere.
Atelier is headed for Versailles for a fourth time in May with a production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Medea, written in 1693 in a fit of creative inspiration after Jean-Baptiste Lully's death broke that composer's monopoly on court opera in Louis XIV's France. But before Medea gets to Versailles, it will be presented at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for a run beginning Saturday.
If you lived in the Paris of 1693, who would have believed you if you told them, 300 years later, artists from that barbaric land across the ocean – Voltaire's "quelque arpents de neige" (a few acres of snow) – would be bringing Medea back in triumph to France? Whatever is the opposite of bringing coal to Newcastle is Opera Atelier bringing Medea to Versailles.
The production will continue a development of vision for Opera Atelier. Pynkoski and his artistic co-director Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg first produced the work almost 15 years ago, but this is no revival. "There is no comparison between this production and the last one. Jeannette and I can hardly even bear to look at the old production," Pynkoski says. "I would like to think we're following the maxim of Jean Cocteau – one of our idols. Style, he said, is what you use to take aim with, it's not the bull's-eye. We still agonize over the design, spend enormous amounts of time on the costumes. But it's all in the aid of storytelling. That's become our goal. We don't think as much about authenticity as about getting the story across. That's become our obsession."
Indeed, Opera Atelier's shows are more intense, but far less elaborate than they were several years ago. Drama has overtaken stylishness. "We get people who say, 'Oh where are the wigs, where are the white gloves?'" Pynkoski says. "But it becomes so marvellous to see progression, natural organic progression in our work. Otherwise, we'd just be staying in one place."
Pynkoski will have plenty of story to tell in Charpentier's Medea. It's a tale, based on Euripides, of political calculation, revenge, infanticide and murder that reminds us that the "civilized" Greeks allowed their imaginations fantastic and brutal sway in the creation of their famous artworks. But, as Pynkoski notes, "to the non-Greeks, the Greeks were thugs – the Greeks were the Vikings of the era – huge, dangerous, muscular killers, uncircumcised maniacs." It's that view of Greek life that provides one of Pynkoski's motivations for this Medea. That, and the understanding that the 17th-century French court for which it was produced was sunk in a trough of deceit, lies and corruption, for which these Greek myths provided a complete and accurate reflection.
Opera Atelier's European adventure is just beginning. Pynkoski and Lajeunesse-Zingg are working on several other productions for European houses they're not quite ready to announce. But their hearts and base of operation will always be in Toronto, the city that still provides them with the artistic support they need to do their work.
When visitors tell you about the superb Opera Atelier's Armide or Lucio Silla or Medea they've seen in Versailles, Salzburg or Milan, you can tell them, "Ah, I saw the original here in Toronto."
Opera Atelier's Medea runs April 22-29 at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto (operaatelier.com).