Futuristic Baroque burlesque: Orphée Darryl Block Photography. Mireille Asselin (Eurydice) and Siman Chung (Orphée).

Futuristic Baroque burlesque: Orphée

Greg Finney

Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the original classic love stories. The story of a man who literally walks into the afterlife to bring his beloved back with him. The catch? He has to lead her back to the land of the living without looking at her. There’s the river Styx, denizens of the Underwold, and even Love herself shows up to tangle up in this mess.

Toronto firecrackers Against the Grain Theatre are at it again, reimagining another classic to appeal to modern day tastes. This time around it’s Gluck’s Orphée that is getting the AtG treatment, in a co-production with Opera Columbus and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Teaming up with Company XIV from New York City, AtG have prepared an Orphée that hearkens back to the days when an opera involved a host of performing arts and were full on evenings of entertainment. They use period dance, modern dance, aerialism, and burlesque alongside some top-notch singing and a new orchestration that involves an electric guitar, digital soundscape, a virtual choir and video projections to bring to life a 21st-century masque/ball/opera extravaganza.

Darryl Block Photography. Mireille Asselin (Eurydice) and Siman Chung (Orphée).

In the title role countertenor Siman Chung sang incredibly well. His tone was even, and warm, and dark. He had a beautiful understanding of his instrument and its musicality. Opening the show playing a pretty mean violin solo, Chung continued to dazzle vocally all the way through the piece. A relentless work for whomever is singing the role of Orphée, Chung’s stamina was equal to the task and more. Unfortunately, I felt a rather large disconnect dramatically. I felt his beautiful singing lacked an urgency in its delivery. I didn’t feel any connection between Chung and his Eurydice - there were times I felt that he was doing another production of Orphée (it was still a beautiful production, and he sang the heck out it) amongst AtG’s incarnation.

Darryl Block Photography. Siman Chung (Orphée).

Mireille Asselin as Eurydice was stunning. Her singing was effervescent and crystalline. She brought an Eurydice that was equal parts youthful vitality and powerful nobility. Her physicality of one who has passed to the Elysian fields varies depending on whether it’s the living looking at her, or fellow denizens of the Underworld. I’m not sure if this was a conscious move by Asselin, but it was stunning. Subtle, yet stunning. Although she mopped (stole) my wedding look, I have to concede it probably does look better on her.

Darryl Block Photography. Mireille Asselin (Eurydice).

As Amour, we were treated to Marcy Richardson. Decked out in full burlesque showgirl attire, she delivered her aria suspended in an aerialist hoop. I thought it was an incredibly neat take on the technical requirements needed to make an actor fly in live theatre. Despite a rather stressful issue with one of the drapes involved with the set tangling in her hoop, she forged on fearlessly and with focus. Her singing was fair, I sensed some intonation issues - which is easy for me to say considering she’s singing upsidedown, suspended 20 feet off the ground (I am aware of that, and to answer the question before it’s asked: No, I cannot do it either, nor have I tried). The problem was still present at the end of the show when she has two feet solidly on the ground.

Darryl Block Photography. Marcy Richardson (Amour).

Undoubtedly, the standout performance of the show goes to the remarkable Company XIV. These six dancers, in some of the most exquisite costuming I’ve ever seen, moved throughout the show functioning much in the way a Greek chorus would. Their physicality representing the off-stage chorus as well as the virtual one compiled by singers from around the world submitting recordings of themselves (savvy audience members may have seen director Joel Ivany singing along).

Each of the dancers was a thing of sheer beauty, their choreography by creator Austin McCormick a blend of lyric contemporary fused with period formal dancing. They blurred the lines of gender and sexuality so seemlessly, that it enhanced their otherworldly presence. While I understand their absence in the climax of the piece was to draw focus on the two lovers as they struggle to return to the land of the living, their perpetually-in-motion presence in every other scene, save for Amour - who was a spectacle onto herself - meant their absence left a hole for me in the pivotal point of the show.

Darryl Block Photography. The Dancers of Company XIV and Siman Chung (Orphée).

The orchestra, led by Topher Mokrzewzski was quite good. There were a few misfires, but overall they played well. The orchestrations, taken after the Berlioz edition were also updated to include electric guitar. The guitar worked for me, I just felt that if you’re going to do something so drastic go all the way and really add some pedals to grunge up the sound a bit. Without it, in the full orchestra, it had almost a pizzicato string section vibe to it.

Darryl Block Photography. Darryl Block Photography. The Dancers of Company XIV and Siman Chung (Orphée).

Overall, you can’t miss this work. The projection and set design by S. Katy Tucker is out of this world. Coupled with JAX Messenger’s lighting and Zane Pihlström’s futuristic showgirl burlesque/Louis XIV-inspired costumes the show is a feast for the eyes as much as the ears.

Do yourself this favour: grab a friend, get some tickets, hit up the Harbourfront Centre. The ticket information is available here.

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