Stage Door Review
Monday, May 31, 2021
by George Frideric Handel, directed by Marshall Pynkoski
Opera Atelier, Toronto
streaming May 27-June 10, 2021
“Viva è la nostra vita” (San Giovanni, La Resurrezione II.3)
Opera Atelier’s new production of Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione (The Resurrection) would be, from the evidence of its filmed version, a wonderful work to experience live. OA had indeed hoped to present the piece live at Koerner Hall the the Royal Conservatory in April this year when the province declared a return of Toronto into lockdown over the increasing spread of Covid. Like so many companies, OA took the logical step of turning to create a filmed version of the production since so much effort and rehearsal had already gone into the project.
I would like to report that the filmed version of the oratorio is an unqualified success, but I have, in fact, too many reservations about the final result to make that statement. There is no doubt that the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under Elisa Citterio, the singers and the dancers of the Opera Atelier corps de ballet are all in top form and the staging itself has many inventive moments. Nevertheless, as filmed theatre there are too many peculiarities , both technical and aesthetic, that undermine one’s full enjoyment.
Publicity about OA’s Resurrection claims that OA is presenting the “Canadian premiere” of Handel’s 1708 oratorio. That is not true. I was there when OA gave the piece its Canadian premiere in April 1999 in the form of a live semi-staged production at the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto. The present production should thus more correctly be seen as the first fully staged production of the work in Canada.
La Resurrezione, Handel’s second oratorio, was written for his patron when Handel was living in Italy. It was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1708. Oratorios grew out the ecclesiastical ban on opera as an unseemly entertainment during Lent. Even though Handel’s musical style in his early oratorios is no different than in his operas, he takes care not to offend religious sensibilities in La Resurrezione not having the divine subject of his work appear. (This is also true in Handel’s most famous oratorio Messiah of 1742.)
The action takes place in a space in front of Christ’s tomb from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. Scenes between an Angel (Carla Huhtanen) and Lucifer (Douglas Williams) alternate with those of three human beings – Mary Magdalene (Meghan Lindsay), Mary Cleophas (Allyson McHardy) and John the Evangelist called San Giovanni (Colin Ainsworth).
In Part I the Angel announces triumphantly that soon Lucifer’s plot in the Garden of Eden to plague humanity with death and sin will be defeated. Lucifer, still full of pride ridicules this notion. Meanwhile on earth, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas mourn the death of Jesus, while John comforts them with the prophesy that Jesus will live again. In Part II the two Marys discover the tomb is empty and they and John see the risen Christ. Meanwhile, the Angel taunts Lucifer with the utter failure of his plans for mankind’s destruction.
Set designer Gerard Gauci is known through OA for his beautifully painted forced perspective drops that recreate the look of 18th-century scenography. For this production he has shifted from the illusion of three dimension to sets actually conceived in three dimensions. In his sketch for the design originally intended for Koerner Hall, he had imagined two sets of crossover stairs one above the other – the upper stairs constructed to look like metal scaffolding, the lower modelled to look like wood. Beneath the central platform of the lower stairs is a curtain that symbolizes the entrance to Christ’s tomb. This is opened at key moments in each part of the oratorio. In Part I the curtains disclose a life-sized photo of dancer Dominic Who as Christ, that strongly recalls the painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (c. 1522) by Hans Holbein the Younger, the key difference being that the photo of Who depicts a young, healthy man with no signs or torture or decay. In Part II the curtains part to reveal the glass tomb filled with lilies, an exquisite way to declare that Christ has risen from the dead.
In the St. Lawrence ballroom, Gauci has taken the two set of stairs apart. The taller one he has placed on the wall that remains on the left-hand side of the screen throughout and has left the lower set of stairs in the centre of the back wall. The central platform of the taller stairs is used only as the entrance for the singers playing the two supernatural beings, the Angel and Lucifer. For these two Gauci’s most genial invention is to create two rostra right and left and far away from back wall which the Angel and Lucifer respectively take to debate whether good or evil will triumph. The height of the rostra emphasize the cosmic nature of the debate between these two beings in contrast to the more human outpourings of emotions from the two Marys and John, who frequently collapse onto the floor or onto the low benches in front of the two rostra.
As for as one can judge from the vagaries of the sound (see below), the cast is uniformly excellent. Carla Huhtanen gives a virtuoso performance as the Angel, tossing off with ease and precision the abundance of coloratura passages Handel gives her. Douglas Williams is a charismatic Lucifer, who vigorously negotiates his own complex passages, still furious that he has been exiled from heaven. Meghan Lindsay is moving as Mary Magdalene, both in her grief and later in her wonder at seeing Christ again. Allyson McHardy creates a sympathetic portrait of Mary Cleophas with her lush, amber-coloured voice. Colin Ainsworth, who debuted with OA in this role, uses the colour in his high tenor to convince us of the strength of John’s faith despite the depth of sorrow he feels.
Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg’s choreography is as elegant as always. She takes every occasion to add dance to the oratorio, whether to enhance the choral sections or the more vivid exclamations of the Angel. For the Angel’s very first aria the corps representing spirits, both male and female, are armed with foils as if to highlight the subject of life and death debated by the Angel and Lucifer. In Part II they all hold lilies, symbols of the miraculous transformation that has occurred as well as of the peace that has now entered the world.
Zingg’s most debatable choice is to include Christ (Dominic Who) among the dancers. Other sacred oratorios have a singing role for Jesus (as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion of 1724). And the notion of a dancing Saviour is not as unusual as one might think. One need only look at the account of Jesus and the apostles dancing in the apocryphal Acts of John. 96: “Thou that dancest, perceive what I do”.
Rather one could object that Carlo Sigismondo Capece, who wrote the libretto for La Resurrezione, has deliberately not included a part for Christ and has followed the ancients in keeping all deaths and miraculous events off stage. Except for the presence of the Angel and Lucifer, Capece’s libretto seems modelled after Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (401bc) which focusses on Theseus, Antigone and Ismene, who mourn Oedipus’ death only to learn that his death was miraculous and has made the place holy where he died. For this reason it could be seen as wrong to include a character that Capece has excluded and, indeed, to my mind excluding Christ from view does increase the mystery surrounding him as something unimaginable.
Nevertheless, Zingg has choreographed this role tastefully with Christ giving the impression of one who is joyful to have been release from death and thus to have saved all humankind. Zingg also includes a pas de deux of Christ with the Virgin Mary, a model of tastefulness and restraint, which builds in meaning every time the eyes of the mother and son momentarily lock.
All of this would be electrifying live on stage but necessity unfortunately drove OA to present La Resurrezione as a film. It therefore has to be judged as such and as such it suffers from three main problem – its sound, lighting and editing. Of these, sound is the most important. Why do classical music lovers go to live concerts except to experience the unmediated sound of music striking their ears and often sensing it with their whole bodies. Obviously, people like myself collect CDs to listen to music when he have a longing to hear a particular piece, player or voice in the moment. Yet we know it is only a simulacrum of the real thing, not the real thing itself. CDs and DVDs are necessary for works that are seldom if ever programmed.
The sound in a filmed piece of music is modified not just by the microphones that pick it up, but in how it is mixed and how it is reproduced at home. La Resurrezione has the peculiarity of being recorded, both orchestra and voices, in Koerner Hall and staged in the ballroom of St. Lawrence Hall. This means that in the film the singers are lip-synching to their own voices are some are better at that than others.
For unknown reasons the sound, at least as it was produced on a friend’s computer, seemed to place the singers behind the orchestra in Part 1 and in front of the orchestra, as one might expect, on in Part 2. Besides this, the voices seemed to have been recorded in a different acoustic than the orchestra. Ainsworth’s voice in particular had a reverb to it that the others did not. Tafelmusik itself was mixed with an emphasis on the bass so that it sounded strangely more like an orchestra on modern instrument than on period instruments.
There is no lighting designer listed either in the film credits or in the beautiful physical programme. One must therefore assume it is Marcel Canzona, who is not only the film director, but the film editor and director of photography. Canzone apparently uses three cameras to film the action and a minimal lighting grid to illuminate it along with a moveable spotlight. The strangest aspect of Canzona’s filming is that the lighting changes radically from cut to cut even within the same aria. At one moment the view of singers or dancers will be clear and sharp; the next it will be hazy; the next under-lit; and the next far too bright with blown highlights. The effect is extremely distracting.
Distracting also is Canzona’s editing. It seems obvious that Canzona’s intent is to give the audience the feel not of looking at a stage on the other side of a proscenium, since at St. Lawrence Hall that is not the situation. Therefore, he has cameras prowling around the floor as close to the performers as possible without disrupting the action while also having one camera filming the action from a distance to show us the context of the close-up action. Theoretically, this is admirable but in practice Canzona films the action rather as in an extended pop music video with far too many cuts per minute among his three cameras – two with different angles on a performer and the one at a distance. This results in our never being able to linger on one view of a singer singing for more than a few seconds.
It also leads to such unfortunate shots as viewing one singer from behind as she sings, viewing the lower half Ainsworth rather too long until he moves far enough away from the camera and seeing dancers obscuring singers who are singing. The restlessness of the editing, which is really only appropriate for the volatile character of Lucifer, really works against the prevailing mood of contemplation in the work. The impression the film leaves us with is one of visual confusion quite unlike the strong symmetry of Pynkoski’s staging and Zingg’s choreography.
Those who did not see OA’s production of La Resurrezione in 1999, which in many ways was all the stronger for being more minimally staged, will certainly wish to see OA’s current film. The chance to see Handel’s early oratorio is far too rare and OA’s ever-dependable troupe of singers and dancers are the best-possible advocates of Handel’s daring that is found everywhere in the piece. The pity is that the film (literally) does not show their advocacy in the best light, but it does achieve one major end. It makes one long to see the work live on stage with the same cast as soon that is finally permissible again.
Photo: Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene with Tyler Gledhill as an angel; Carla Huhtanen as the Angel, © 2021 Bruce Zinger. Douglas Williams as Lucifer, © 2021 Marcel Canzona. Artists of the Atelier Ballet, © 2021 Bruce Zinger. Allyson McHardy as Mary Cleophas and Colin Ainsworth as John the Evangelist, © 2021 Marcel Canzona.
To view visit www.operaatelier.com.