Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Special to TorSun
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Peggy Kriha Dye,
Colin Ainsworth

TORONTO - Long before Xena, Warrior Princess, conquered our airwaves and Joan of Arc lit up the world, there was yet another conquering heroine. Her name was Armide, and she was first glimpsed in Torquato Tasso's epic 16th century poem, Jerusalem Delivered. But it wasn't until she became the heroine of Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1686 opera that fittingly bears her name that she conquered the baroque world and beyond.

And now, she's poised to conquer the world once again, as Opera Atelier reawakens and re-imagines its 2005 production of the classic work, originally mounted in celebration of the company's 20th anniversary. This time out, it is being served up, not only for a Toronto audience, but for audiences at both New York's prestigious Glimmerglass Opera Festival and the Opera Royal in Versailles, where it will make stops later this year. Torontonians got their first opportunity to revisit the revitalized production Saturday at the Elgin and, in the main, it's a winner, with artistic director Marshall Pynkoski assembling an impressive cast to bring the work to life on Gerard Gauci's ever more impressively lavish set.

Playing out according to a libretto by Philippe Quinault, ARMIDE is set in and around Damascus during the first great crusade, at the end of the 11th century, and it opens as the armies of King Hidradot (bass João Fernandes) celebrate victory over the Christian invaders intent on 'saving' the Holy Land. That victory, it seems, is thanks in large part to the efforts of Hidradot's warrior niece, Armide, impressively sung by soprano Peggy Kriha Dye.

But while the city celebrates, Armide broods, despondent she has been unable to subdue the Christian knight Renaud, sung by tenor Colin Ainsworth, who happily reins things in a little from his cloying '05 performance. But after Renaud single-handedly frees a brace of Armide's Christian captives, she pulls out heavy artillery from the sorcery department and enlists all sorts of Moorish magic to help her enslave the errant knight, unwittingly setting herself up for a fall in the process when she finds herself head-over-heels in love with the man she has heretofore despised.

Musically, ARMIDE is rich fare, with conductor David Fallis drawing some impressive work from the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (after it settled into the work)  and its Chamber Choir, but dramatically, it's a bit of a stop 'n' start affair, with a plotline heavy on reflective, introspective moments that provide plenty of opportunity for choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg and her corps de ballet to strut their stuff.

Happily, Pynkoski draws fine work from the majority of his cast, with sopranos Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay joining baritones Curtis Sullivan and Vasil Garvanliev to add dramatic depth to the proceedings, before they surrender the stage to tenor Aaron Ferguson and bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre, who whip things into a perfect comic frenzy injecting some boffo buffa into the proceedings.

Meanwhile Gauci continues to refine his lavish, Persian calligraphy-inspired sets to a point where they fairly shimmer with beauty, setting off the lavish costumes for which Dora Rust D'Eye apparently pillaged Gerrard East seven years ago. Sadly, on opening night Bonnie Beecher's otherwise flawless lighting seemed to be suffering from a bit of premature illumination, opening windows into upcoming scenes before the scene at hand was completely finished —  but hopefully, that should work out in subsequent playings. It still remains to be seen whether ARMIDE can conquer the world once again — but Saturday night, she got off to a good start.

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