Going Forward into the Past

By Citron, Paula | Dance Magazine, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Going Forward into the Past


Citron, Paula, Dance Magazine


Such is the demand for tickets for the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas that opens February 2 that two extra performances have had to be added. This raises the question as to why a seventeenth-century English opera about the queen of Carthage who falls in love with a Trojan prince only to the from grief when he abandons her is attracting such popularity.

One explanation is that HGO audiences are going to be treated to a spectacle the likes of which they have never seen before. This Dido is a coproduction with Opera Atelier, a Toronto-based company that is beginning to attract international attention by bringing back to life the splendor of the baroque theatrical repertoire in productions that are as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears. Artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Zingg are not dry scholars slavishly resurrecting works from historical sources; rather, the couple works in the spirit of the period, which gives Opera Atelier's productions their distinctive freshness, neither historical" nor "academic." Says stage director Pynkoski, "We recreate rather than reconstruct by using the aesthetic framework in which the piece first appeared as the jumping-off point to put together something new. For example, two baroque ballerinas, Camargo and Salle, performed the same works at the Paris Opera, but one was described as lyrical, the other as sensual. They didn't dance in the same way; each was a unique interpreter, and we see ourselves the same way. We're artists in our own right, creating our own style within the confines of a greater style."

"The baroque vocabulary should not be a straitjacket," adds choreographer Zingg, thirty-four. "For example, if I'm re-creating a ballet by John Weaver, I'll do massive research into his life and works. I'll listen to the music he used and try to envision what his ballet would have looked like if I were doing an academic reconstruction. Then I lay the research aside. It becomes my point of departure; I take the description of the piece and inform it with my own creativity. This `newness' is what makes our performances come alive for modern audiences. I want to shake off the image that Opera Atelier is an historical company, because we're people creating in the twentieth century. We're a modern company."

The Opera Atelier production of Dido will have international exposure; the opera has already been performed in Toronto as part of the company's home season, and after Houston will travel to London and Paris, thanks to the renowned French conductor Marc Minkowski who acted as godfather to the venture, so to speak. The maestro is director of the award-winning early music ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre, the orchestra for Dido, and the founder of Le Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, a training school in French baroque repertoire.

Minkowski first worked with Opera Atelier when he was asked to conduct the company's 1992 period production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. When HGO's general director, David Gockley, approached the maestro about conducting an early opera for his company, Minkowski suggested a coproduction with the Toronto group.

Says Minkowski, "It's rare to find in the same person the ability to be both a good director and a choreographer, yet understand the correct physical rhythm and sense of theater needed for the baroque period. Marshall and Jeannette have this true spirit of the baroque, which is why I decided to continue my relationship with them after Figaro and have brought them to France to do workshops for our students. They are able to join together the two universes of dancing and singing, which is the heart of baroque theater. Today, most people are interested in early operas only for the music and tend to ignore the dances.

"For example, Purcell noted in his score for Dido 'a dance in the Spanish style,' and Jeannette was able to create a piece where the dancers play castanets and cymbals exactly as in period paintings, which adds a richness to the production as a whole. …

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