Thursday, 26 November 2015

New Hall, Classic Orchestra

I'm currently on holiday, and staying for just 3 nights in London after flying over from Canada.  But it's November, and the arts season is in full swing.  So, unlike the height of the summer, there are classical concerts all over the city -- in every venue from huge concert halls to little churches.

I had half a dozen choices for my two available nights, and finally opted for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra tonight, largely because they were playing in a venue I'd never heard of before: Cadogan Hall.  I would urge you to google the Hall's website and have a look, because it's quite the place with quite the unusual history.

But long story short: it's a former Christian Science Church that's been completely renovated into a beautiful concert hall, somewhere between neo-classical and art deco in style, with lovely acoustics and less than 1000 seats, making it more intimate than such venues as the Barbican, Royal Festival Hall, and especially the gargantuan Royal Albert Hall.  Tonight's concert was conducted by Christoph Koenig and featured cellist Laura van der Heijden.

The concert opened with Schubert's beloved Unfinished Symphony.  Koenig's performance of this work was classically shaped and avoided all interpretive excesses -- except one.  I felt the entire symphony was just a little too fast.  But this is a matter of personal taste.  Certainly Koenig heeded the famous advice of Sir Donald Tovey that the basic tempo of the two movements should be beat for beat identical, and if anything slightly faster in the second "slow" movement.  Koenig allowed the music to breathe beautifully without obviously speeding up or slowing down, and that's an art that seems to escape many conductors nowadays.  This entire work brought the most beautiful and poetic playing in the critical horn parts, and the clarinet's sustained lyrical lines in the second movement were an absolute delight too.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I have ever heard the Unfinished played live.  It seems to have become one of those works, like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that are "never played because everyone has heard them so often."  Well, after this concert, I can only say, "That's a pity."

Cellist van der Heijden then took centre stage for Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme.  In all honesty, I have to admit that this is not one of my favourite works, either by Tchaikovsky or for the cello and orchestra.  But if we are going to have it, then van der Heijden and Koenig certainly teamed up to show us how it ought to be done.  Solo playing was crisp and clear at all times, with even the quiet notes coming across clearly thanks to Cadogan Hall's live and open acoustic.  The orchestra's role often requires them to "interrupt" the soloist, and these interruption entries were neatly done too.  The performers worked up to a rousing ending.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Dvorak's impassioned and tragic Seventh Symphony.  This, too, was a first-time-live for me, and I was certainly not disappointed.  This work brought the largest orchestra of the evening with five horns and three trombones. 

Considering how many trombone jokes one hears going around, the quiet playing of that section was certainly admirable.  After one weak moment in the first movement, the horns excelled themselves again, as did the clarinet and oboe.  The cello section in particular impressed with their beauty of tone in the slow movement. 

This is a powerful work, designedly so.  Dvorak wanted to prove that there was more to him than pretty tunes and folk dances, and he definitely achieved that end.  It's actually a pretty rare bird in the repertoire, a symphony that ends in the height of its dark and tragic power.  Gone is the idea of the progression from darkness to light that was so common from the time of Beethoven onwards.  Indeed, the massive and tragic coda of the final movement is the most powerful moment of the entire symphony.

If there was ever a work that would tempt a conductor to over-conduct, this would be it -- but Koenig didn't fall into that trap.  With a simple clear beat, and sparing interpretive gestures, he led the orchestra in a reading that brought up all the power and drama of the work without overriding any of the quiet lyrical moments that provide necessary relief.  Noteworthy was the gentle lilt of the third movement, a piece whose cross-rhythms sometimes seem to make players and conductors edgy and nervous -- if one can judge by recordings.  And the final coda was big, bold, and dramatic enough for anyone's taste while still maintaining perfect balance among the various sections.

By any standards, this was a very rewarding concert indeed -- and to say that I was greatly impressed by the beauty and quality of Cadogan Hall would be a gross understatement!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Poetry in Motion

This week's highlight -- one of the highlights of the entire fall culture season for me -- is the Canadian premiere of the National Ballet of Canada's newest production:  The Winter's Tale, derived from the late Shakespeare play.

This full-length new work comes from the same creative team as the wildly successful Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:  choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley.  The similarity stops right there.

Alice is wildly dynamic, like its source material: fast-paced, even frantic at times, hilariously absurd, and brilliantly costumed.  The Winter's Tale owes its very different tone to its very different source material.

This play is one of a quartet of late plays by Shakespeare sometimes called the "romances":  The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.  Only the last-named is at all well-known.  All four share some common thematic material.  Each one features tales of people who are lost and then rediscovered.  Each one has its innocent character who must become acquainted with the wider world.  Each one revolves around some terrible wrong or injury maliciously done by one character to another, and the process by which the injury is set right again usually involves some sort of magical or divine intervention.  Each play ends with a scene of recovery and reconciliation, a scene in which the mystical tone is well to the forefront.  In current modern usage, I'm tempted to call these the "karma plays" because of these common thematic threads that weave them all together.

From this brief synopsis, it's not surprising to find that the play takes a very poetic approach to the subject.  The artists creating this ballet have wisely done the same.  The result is involving, gripping, thought-provoking, and does indeed rise to the purest form of poetry in motion -- especially in the final scene, a near-miracle of emotion conveyed through dance.

One of the difficulties of the play is the disjunct nature of the script: four dark and dramatic acts set in the kingdom of Sicilia frame one much lighter and more comical act taking place in the kingdom of Bohemia.  The scenario of this ballet has succeeded, with a little rewriting of the story, in linking the two kingdoms more firmly together and thus integrating the entire main plot line.

The settings for Sicilia have a formality, rigidity and sterility that reflects the emotional coldness of that kingdom.  The dominant colours are monochrome -- whites and greys.  Rectangular pillared archways move in and out, statues appear in different positions, a staircase has a solid block-like banister, and everything is plain to the point of dreariness.

Bohemia, by contrast, is a kingdom bubbling with life and energy, and its setting naturally matches that quality.  The curtain rises on a marvellous "tree of life" taking up three quarters of the upstage wall.  It's such a spectacular sight that the audience instantly burst into applause, and no wonder.  Poised high on lacy interwoven roots with air space clearly visible between them, the tree looks gentle and delicate and yet possesses great strength as people climb it on ladders, sit on the roots, even step inside the gap in the trunk.  The entire tree is coloured in the most vivid greens, colours that appear almost greener than green under the lights.  What a wonderful metaphor for life itself, in all its fullness!  The costumes in this act capture an appropriately peasant look, with earth tones predominating, although brighter colours appear too.

A key visual effect is a series of projected backdrops which provide the sky for each scene.  In Sicilia the sky is normally a dull mass of clouds.  Bohemia's sky is brighter, more colourful, more lifelike.  This is no accident.  A front scrim projection of a sailing ship at sea is used to great effect for the two voyages which link these disparate kingdoms together.

Joby Talbot's score for this complex story is vivid and colourful, often lacking the structural strength that informed his Alice score, but very effectively supporting the action and the stage pictures all the same -- and in some scenes contributing heavily to the emotional atmosphere.  In that respect it resembles the best of film music.

The stakes for Christopher Wheeldon, already set high in Alice, are raised still further here.  His choreography is rooted in classicism, yet consists as often as not of steps, lifts and turns that derive from modern dance.  The fusion of the two into a single rich choreographic language is critical to the success of this piece.  It gives the dancers the power to express the full spectrum of human emotion, even at its rawest, while still maintaining the poise which reminds the audience that this story is, after all, still a fable and should be examined as such for the meaning beneath its surface.

Some of the most spectacular choreography of the entire ballet comes during Act II, the Bohemian act.  The first and third acts, by contrast, are dominated by the characters of the story.  These are the Sicilian acts.  A short prologue introduces us to two young princes who grow up as the best of friends.  When grown to manhood, they become the kings of the two kingdoms.  A brief but telling segment shows the wedding of Leontes of Sicilia and Hermione, with the stylized gestures they each make to the other taking the place of more conventional balletic gestures to the ring finger and heart.

In the first act, Leontes becomes convinced that Hermione has borne two children to his good friend, Polixenes of Bohemia.  The moment when this horrible jealousy first touches him is tellingly underlined by a switch of the music from stylized harmonious tones to grinding dissonances.  Leontes (portrayed by Piotr Stanczyk) dances a jealousy solo which is gripping in its hard-edged, enraged quality.  Hermione (Hannah Fischer) pleads with him but is banished and Leontes tries to stab Polixenes (Harrison James).  So great does his rage become that his son Mammilius drops dead and Hermione -- after giving birth to a daughter -- also dies of grief.  Leontes orders the baby girl to be left by the seaside to die or live, as the case may be. 

In the play, the mistress of the household, Paulina, begins to rage at Leontes for what he has done.  The appropriate physical equivalent comes here when Paulina beats on Leontes with her fists until he collapses in despair on the ground.  Xiao Nan Yu was already powerful as Paulina in this scene, but there was much more to come.

Paulina's husband, Antigonus, is given the duty of taking away the baby princess.  He sails with her to Bohemia, there leaves her on the beach in a basket, and then is pursued to his death ("Exit, pursued by a bear" is the infamous and laconic stage direction).  The almost magical appearance of the bear at this point was not the least of the gripping visual images of the ballet and the music underscoring it was also gripping and intense.

The Bohemian act, as already described, is a vivid picture of springtime and the first coming of love.  The infant princess has been raised by a shepherd and his son, played by Etienne Lavigne and Dylan Tedaldi.  Tedaldi was very effective in the comical caperings of the young shepherd, often leading the corps de ballet alongside a shepherdess danced by Jordana Daumec.  This couple sets the light, playful tone of the entire second act, a tone sustained by the generally energetic -- and occasionally clumsily comical -- choreography.

Indeed, this act really belongs to the corps de ballet, lock, stock and barrel.  There's an onstage banda playing on traditional instruments, and the music incorporates earthy rhythms that demand to be danced.  The corps have a whole series of wonderful folk-dance styled pieces in this act.  The music is frequently shot through with added and dropped beats.  I have it from an authoritative source (my nephew Robert Stephen, who dances in the company) that the dancers are doing a lot of counting in their heads and it's no wonder!  I'm sure the orchestra musicians are too -- but the game is definitely worth the candle, as the whole vivid act pulsates with life and energy and growth and generation.

This is where we meet the young princess, now called Perdita (Jillian Vanstone), who has fallen in love with the son of Polixenes, Florizel (Naoya Ebe).  In the theatre these are considered plum roles for rising young actors, but here they are danced by two principal dancers in the fullness of their artistic maturity.  Vanstone and Ebe made a fine partnership, convincingly portraying the youth and lighthearted high spirits of first love.  Their energetic dancing was as delightful as the lyricism of their slow pas de deux.  Vanstone has always been good at playing under her age (her Alice a notable example) but this is the first time I've ever seen Ebe loosen up and grow into a role this believably.  Only for one or two brief moments was I aware that there were dancers before us executing complex steps.  Wonderful work from both!

Harrison James convincingly portrayed the rage of Polixenes at discovering his son on the point of marrying a low-bred shepherd girl.  Edgy, yes, but also noticeably different from the abandoned jealousy previously shown by Leontes.  In a few brief seconds, James told us everything we needed to know about the differences between the two kings -- a telling moment of characterization indeed.

The final act seems at first blush to be hurrying to the conclusion of the story.  The mourning ritual of Paulina and Leontes is emotionally intense in slow motion.  Here above all, Xiao Nan Yu gave 110% of herself in some the most powerful dancing of the entire work.  Her sad yet lyrical solo certainly held me rapt with attention under the spell she cast.  Truly a remarkable performance.

The arrival of Perdita and Florizel, Leontes' recognition that Florizel looks like his lost friend Polixenes, Paulina's recognition of the green emerald around Perdita's neck which proves her Leontes' daughter, the arrival of Polixenes and his reconciliation with Leontes -- all this passes quickly and without much chance to register. 

But the emotional climax comes when Paulina unveils a new statue of Hermione -- and the statue comes to life.  In a heart-tugging reminiscence, Hermione repeats the stylized gestures made at their marriage, and then takes Leontes by the hands and leads him through the ritual as well.  The following pas de deux of love reborn and trust restored between Hermione and Leontes is the true emotional climax of the ballet.  Here, Fischer and Stanczyk amplified and extended the rapt, dignified quality of Yu's solo a few minutes earlier with stunning grace and emotional force.

My one beef has to do not with the performance itself, but with the description given in the programme and in Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer's pre-show talk.  In both cases, we were told that Hermione was concealed for 16 years until Leontes came to his senses -- whereupon she posed like a statue for that final scene.

But the play doesn't tell us that.  As Hermione returns to life, Paulina simply says that she has done this without resorting to the dark powers.  The text is ambiguous on what has actually happened, very cleverly so -- and I am convinced this is deliberate.  Whether in fact Paulina has used magic or not is left to the audience to decide, and the stage production I saw was content to leave it there.

It's a pity that the choreographer decided to shut off the possibility of some magical element so definitely.  In a fable, why not admit magic?  That little "what if..?" underlines the crucial need for balance to be fully restored to the lives of the central characters in the story -- the karma, if you like.  More's the pity that Wheeldon chose not to allow that idea, for it weakens the emotional impact of that final scene.

This magnificent new full-length ballet is truly a landmark in the development of contemporary story ballet, and will certainly repeat in coming seasons.  I for one will be looking forward to that, and to seeing this marvellous creation danced again with new and different casts adding their own depths and dimensions to the piece.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Danish Powerhouse

Saturday a week ago was the "final" repeat of the National Theatre's NT Live cinemacast of Shakespeare's Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.  I admit that my title conveys a pun, considered in relation to the royal family of the play, but really has much more to do with the performing style.

This is one of several productions featured in the NT Live series which in fact do not originate with the National Theatre.  It's a production staged by West End producers Sonia Friedman Productions, and filmed before a live audience at the Barbican arts centre in the City of London.

Another such production, by the way, was the Donmar Warehouse's staging of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston, which is being called back by popular demand for a repeat cinemacast on November 19 (you can read my review of it here:  Sheer Stage Power ).

Anyway, to the production at hand of Hamlet.  Apart from Cumberbatch, none of the other actors appearing in the show are likely to be at all familiar unless you are a close follower of the English theatre.  All, however, showed considerable gifts in interpreting the maddeningly human contradictions which run through all the characters in the play.

The Barbican's theatre is a flat-floored arena below raked seating, and Es Devlin's set was arranged on this floor as an asymmetrical "V" shaped wall, with the apex of the "V" well over towards upstage right.  It included multiple doorways, an upstairs gallery on the stage right short wall, and a long flight of stairs across the back up to the gallery. 

This sounds big, but the floor is bigger still -- and so there was ample room to stage whole scenes down centre with the walls completely in darkness.  The most startling scenic effect came at the beginning of Act 2, after Hamlet's departure to England, when the entire stage was covered with a litter of broken fragments of what appeared to be rock.  The piles grew higher and the fragments bigger as you looked backwards through the open double doors, until the far end of the palace corridor was stacked up at least halfway to the ceiling with heaps of rubble -- a powerful visual metaphor for the collapsing world of the Danish royal family.  The whole set -- the palace, really -- was coloured in dull shades of assorted greys and blues, creating a dark and dismal effect -- more like a medieval castle in spite of the unmistakable "palace" d├ęcor.

Director Lyndsey Turner made full use of all the possibilities in this set, adding in movable set pieces to create the different room environments required by the play, as well as the outdoor moments.  Cuts in the text simplify the main line of the story, at the cost of heavily shortening the parts of a number of minor characters.

Music effects were mainly used to bridge scenes, and heightened the tension very effectively too, with much of the music depending on dissonant chords, deep rumbling basses and shrill high notes.

As noted, this is a highly physical production of the play.  Given the huge space available, that's not so surprising.  But the extent of the physical activity certainly is.  Characters race up and down the long staircase.  The graveside fight and duel scenes are loaded with energy.  The scene where Hamlet is to depart to England turns into a Saturday-cartoon-like chase scene up and down a corridor and in and out of the doors on both sides -- but because it was all deadly serious, nobody laughed.

This brings out one of the serious drawbacks of the live-to-cinema telecast.  After that hugely energetic duel, it's simply not possible for the actors to die and then lie still on the floor when they are still breathing twice each second -- and it's impossible to conceal the breathing from the all-seeing eye of the close-up camera.

This production was notable for the strength of the performances right across the board and down to the smallest minor parts.  The overall tone of  this court was not so much courtly as bureaucratic, supported by both voices and physicality.  The chief bureaucrat, Claudius, set the tone altogether in his first appearances, although he revealed more and more of his tyrannical side as the play progressed.  Ciaran Hinds built up the interpretation to a powerful prayer scene in which he shared the focus equally with Hamlet.

Anastasia Hille presented a believably conflicted Gertrude, and reached a peak of vulnerability as she described the suicide of Ophelia.

Ophelia herself was played by Sian Brooke with great subtlety in the opening scenes, and with anything but subtlety in her mad scene.  She packed more physical tics and jerks and spasms into ten minutes than many actors could do across an entire evening. 

Jim Norton played Polonius as a consummate bureaucrat, always with a useful suggestion or two (or more) at his fingertips.  His advice-to-Laertes scene sounded just like an executive summary of the main points at the end of a 4-hour meeting.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gave us a Laertes who became an erupting volcano of rage, his anger smothering over any sadness, on his return to Elsinore.  For me, this was one of the more one-sided characterizations in this show.

Ruairi Conaghan and Diveen Henry formed an excellent partnership as the Player King and Queen.  They started inside a small portable proscenium almost like an overgrown puppet theatre (placed upstage centre), playing their romantic scene in a fashion of a fairy-tale cartoon.  The Player King's murder was then enacted downstage centre, forcing the entire "audience" for The Mouse Trap to turn their backs on the "stage" and face us.  The point became clear when we saw the facial reaction of Claudius to the murder scene, but it was a clumsy and awkward way of letting us view him.

The one character who rather disappointed me was Horatio, played by Leo Bill.  Admittedly it isn't a clearly-defined character, but Bill's anonymous and rather faceless student seemed like a most unlikely friend for Benedict Cumberbatch's energetic Hamlet. 

And Hamlet was energetic, as energetic a Hamlet as I have ever seen.  No chance for this Hamlet to be stalled into immobility.  Even his indecision was a constant war of nerves within himself, and the entire performance was shot through with that kind of nervy, edgy quality.  Note that this did not make Hamlet fidgety-nervous.  Cumberbatch kept his nerves on a tight rein, but the very tightness of that rein was the measure of how edgy he became.  If in the process the character as a whole became a bit more "stagey" than others in the play, no harm was done because this most definitely was a Hamlet searching for the proper role he was to play in avenging his father. 

The soliloquies are, as always, central to the character.  With this Hamlet, these became the moments when he could unwind a bit of his tension by talking things through to himself.  The soliloquies had something of that self-conversational tone to them, and it served the play very well, giving the audience and actor alike a most necessary respite before the tension was ratcheted up again.

This production was called the "Most In-Demand Theatre Production of All Time" when the entire 12-week run sold out in seven hours, more than a year before the show opened (that's close to 100,000 tickets!).  It's now been seen by millions more worldwide through the NT Live cinemacast and multiple rebroadcasts.  The theatre I was at used one of its largest auditoriums and was probably 80-90% filled.

Was it artistically good?  Definitely.  Was it a best-ever in any way?  Certainly not.  The fascination of Hamlet is that there are always more ways to play this tragedy than anyone can dream up -- in which this endlessly challenging and provoking drama perfectly mirrors Hamlet's famous words that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  And was it just my imagination, or did Cumberbatch change "your" to "our"?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

To Lead and to Follow

Last week I took in a most unusual concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, a concert in which three of the four works were played without a conductor! 

We've become so used to the institution of the conductor-led orchestra that it's sometimes hard for us to remember that this is basically a nineteenth-century invention.  In previous periods, the orchestras were smaller, and could be quite readily directed by one of the players -- sometimes the first violinist, or the keyboard player on harpsichord, piano, or organ.  This was the procedure followed in this stimulating programme.

The concert opened with a work entitled Steps to Ecstasy by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich.  It's a work for strings and a few winds, inspired by the music and the sculpture of the Baroque era.  The sound textures of the piece were truly fascinating, and there was an ongoing energy to the music which ensured that time passed in a regulated, rhythmic fashion throughout.  It was almost startling to hear a contemporary composer writing music which made such extensive use of Baroque style in its phrases and cadences.  This is a piece I would definitely like to hear again.  It was led by the orchestra's concertmaster, Benedicte Lauziere.

There then followed two piano concertos, both led from the keyboard by pianist Orion Weiss.  First we had the A Major Concerto, K. 488, by Mozart.  This concerto had two unusual features: first, it uses clarinets instead of oboes, and second, its slow movement is one of the very few times Mozart ever wrote in the key of F sharp minor.

This was a fine classically balanced reading, a feature undoubtedly determined by the fact of the conductor doubling as soloist.  Romanticized excesses in tempo or dynamics would be far too hard to manage in such a situation.  Tempi were well chosen to provide contrast without extremes, and the finale in particular was characterized by a light, playful tone quality.

After the intermission, we were given Bach's keyboard concerto in D major, BWV 1054, itself transcribed from the earlier E major concerto for violin, BWV 1042.  Here I felt that the speeds got a little too fast, making the union of keyboard and orchestra a bit uneasy.  This was particularly true in the finale, where blurring of the sound resulted as one instrument or another got a bit ahead of the beat or behind it.  Perhaps more time needed to be given to this in rehearsal.

The concert concluded with Haydn's Symphony in E Flat Major, No. 103 ("With the Drum Roll").  Here the orchestra was at last conducted, by Assistant Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser.  Right off the bat, I felt that the famous opening drum roll was far too prolonged.  It's true that Haydn gives the drumroll a 3-beat adagio bar with a fermata (pause sign), but I felt that stretching it to three times the length of the subsequent bars or more was milking the gesture to excess -- and it became even more irritating when the drumroll recurred near the end of the first movement, and that hugely long hold brought the entire symphony to a momentary standstill.

After that overdone start, though, the performance as a whole was most rewarding -- sparkling with energy, woodwinds nicely balanced against the strings, solos highlighted without being over-emphasized, and the music always proceeding with a spring in its step.  For me, that's the essential characteristic of Haydn's music, that sense of cheerfulness and life-enhancing energy.  The vigorous finale came to vivid bouncing life under Bartholomew-Poyser. Taken as a whole, this was a fascinating and truly delightful concert.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Realms of Magic Again

When Opera Atelier staged Handel's Alcina last fall ( Magic Shadows ), I was immediately intrigued by the resemblance of the storyline to Tasso's famous Renaissance romance of Rinaldo and Armida.  Lo and behold, Opera Atelier's opening presentation for this season is a remounting of their production of Lully's Armide!  And so we revisit similar story material, but with a very different musical and scenic emphasis.

Armide was one of Lully's last works, and exemplified the new style of the tragedie lyrique which he helped to evolve.  It's notable as one of the very first times that an opera devoted so much time to the development of a character -- and that character is, remarkably, not the Crusader knight Renaud but the pagan sorceress Armide.

The contrast to Handel's great masterpiece is striking.  By the time Handel composed Alcina, the Italian opera seria was hedged around with a whole range of conventions of style -- and some of those conventions, such as the show-stopping virtuoso aria, continued to operate well into the twentieth century.  Lully's work is a very different sort of creation altogether, closer in style to one much earlier masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.  In Lully, the music is most often shaped by the dramatic need of the moment: recitative to present narrative information, accompaniment added to infuse shades of feeling, short arioso or duet segments when a character's feelings come foremost, and choral numbers to accompany the ballet which was such an essential part of the French court operas.

As always, Opera Atelier has come up with a truly sumptuous production to present this wonderful music drama.  Gerard Gauci's sets abandon the elaborate trompe l'oeil effects of some of his other productions in favour of a plainer style of flat backdrop painting which still conveys location very effectively -- and there are a number of locations in this work.  The costumes adopt bright primary and secondary colours for the ladies of the singing cast and for all the dancers of the ballet, while the men in the singing roles are clothed in variants of dark brown, but with luxurious materials.  The swirl of colours in the ballet sections is one of the great visual delights of this production.

Given the emphasis on the character of the Islamic sorceress Armide, her role requires a first-rate singing actress.  Armide has to be mobile and emotive; plain old stand-and-deliver singing would be fatal to the part, and to the opera as a whole.  Peggy Kriha Dye gives a first-rank interpretation of a complex character part.  She makes use of all the shades of a very flexible voice, soaring gloriously in one passage only to fall to a whisper of sound a few minutes later, or turn to an outright snarl when her hatred dominates her.  The critical solo where she tries to kill the sleeping Renaud, only to struggle with her own emotions as she finds herself falling in love with him instead, is the true dramatic highlight of the entire piece.

Around her is gathered a strong cast, some familiar to OA audiences, and some less so.  Several people have to play multiple roles.  Among the more striking was baritone Daniel Belcher in his role as the allegorical figure of La Haine ("Hatred") -- darkly, intensely powerful in the third act exorcism of Love.

Sopranos Meghan Lindsay and Carla Huhtanen were especially memorable in the comical fourth act as they played evil spirits trying to seduce two Crusader knights from their mission to recall Renaud from his spell-enslaved state.  Tenor Aaron Ferguson and bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre as the knights matched the two spirits in clear singing mingled equally with comic byplay. 

This scene, incidentally, ended with a staging goof that really caught my attention.  The two knights are bearing Armide's magic sceptre to protect themselves, and bringing a magical diamond shield to show Renaud the reflection of his true state.  At the end of the scene, having successfully (although barely) withstood the wily lures of Lindsay and Huhtanen, the knights headed jauntily off stage, leaving the shield and sceptre behind.  The "error" became glaringly obvious moments later when they reappeared in the next scene safely carrying the sceptre and shield!  It was noticeable precisely because Opera Atelier productions usually pay close attention to such details!

Tenor Colin Ainsworth took the role of Renaud, believably capturing the almost arrogantly self-aware knight and the spell-struck lover equally well. 

The Atelier Ballet contributed significantly to the overall impact of the production, not least in the dance where several of the dancers discreetly used finger cymbals, bells, and castanets, to fine exotic effect.

As ever, the entire production rested with utter security upon the crisp, sprightly playing of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, with the entire performance strongly directed by David Fallis.