When Marshall Pynkoski boasted that Opera Atelier's performance of Alcina would be both the Canadian premiere of the opera and the first major Handel opera ever performed by the company, it was clear his expectations were high. Since the group's recent successes at Salzburg, La Scala and Versailles, I've felt a barely perceptible anxiety creeping in among the audience at Atelier's performances, almost as if we can't enjoy Opera Atelier without wondering how well they're going to represent Canada on the world stage. I mean, what if the Toronto premiere gets a standing ovation and the same show flops in San Francisco? What does that say about Torontonians as a concert-going public? Are our standards high enough? Our artists good enough? What if we're rubes?
It's understandable then, that Globe and Mail critic Robert Harris chose to single out Alcina's premiere as a competent but unconvincing performance vocally. The singers managed to deliver a capable performance, and I'm still proud that they will represent Canada in the larger world of international opera. There's just nothing in this opera to brag about per se. And in an opera seria like Alcina, if you can't brag about the singing, there's not a lot else to brag about. There's no plot (although Handel's librettist Riccardo Broschi tried mightily to find one) or clever ensemble pieces, or dialogue, just amazing arias that are supposed to blow us all away.
Still, Opera Atelier put on a good show for us. The overall aesthetic of the company strives for historically informed performance practice combined with modern staging and set design, and in that they succeeded very well. The pit orchestra -- Tafelmusik, led by David Fallis -- was and will continue to be exceptional. The staging was innovative in the way it combined video with the sets and action onstage, (although Atelier really needs to tone down the whole obsession-with-naked-male-bodies-everywhere theme that currently dominates most of its productions and leaves most audience members scratching their heads). But Opera Atelier is still a local treasure -- indeed, how many cities in the world can boast of having their own Baroque opera company? -- and it's truly amazing that it took the company this long to finally put on a major Handel opera. With a clear artistic vision, a wealth of talent both on- and offstage, and a curatorial vision guiding the company to some of the most beautiful (and overlooked) operatic treasures of the 17th and 18th centuries, Opera Atelier's vision of Alcina is truly worthy of both praise and admiration.