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In Chicago debut, Opera Atelier brings ‘sexy, strange’ works from 250+ years ago

Colin Ainsworth, pictured in Charpentier's "Actéon," stars in both of the Opera Atelier productions coming to the Harris Theatre.

Colin Ainsworth, pictured in Charpentier's "Actéon," stars in both of the Opera Atelier productions coming to the Harris Theater. | Bruce Zinger

Just a handful of companies in North America specialize in productions of centuries-old baroque opera with both period music and staging. One happens to be headquartered in Chicago — the Haymarket Opera Company — and another is Toronto-based Opera Atelier.

The latter, which has appeared at such distinguished European venues as Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and the Salzburg Festival, will make its local debut Thursday and Friday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. It will present a double bill of two rarely performed French opéras-ballets: Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Actéon” (1683) and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pygmalion” (1748).

Patricia Barretto, who took over as the Harris Theater’s president and chief executive officer in September, formerly served as Opera Atelier’s executive director. So, she knows the 33-year-old company well and believes it is a perfect fit for the venue she now heads.

“I’ve always been in love with their work,” she said. “I’ve traveled with that company all over Europe, and I’ve gotten to see firsthand that company’s performances stacked up against some of the world’s greatest in opera, and, let me know tell you, they hold their own.”

‘Actéon’ and ‘Pygmalion’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35-$135
Info: (312) 334-7777; harristheaterchicago.org

Barretto sees Opera Atelier, something “really interesting and resonant of the Old World,” as an ideal counterweight to other Harris Theater offerings like Akram Kham’s 2016 reimagining of “Giselle.” And because dance is integrated into both operas, she hopes the company will appeal to music and dance audiences.

Opera Atelier tries to bring a historically informed approach to all aspects of its productions. But unlike some period companies, it is not trying to create “reconstructions” that faithfully hew to the past.

“When the early-music movement really took off 40 years ago or so, there was a big focus on the word ‘authenticity,’ ” said Marshall Pynkoski, who serves as the company’s founding co-artistic director along with Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. “That is a word we have always stepped back from at Opera Atelier. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but we want to make it very, very clear that we are not a museum company. We’re not saying, ‘Step back in time with us.’ ”

Instead, the company looks to the past as a “catalyst” toward creating something new. While it is largely focused on the baroque era, roughly 1600 to 1750, Opera Atelier has performed Mozart operas and recently staged the first North American production of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz” (1821) using period instruments.

“When we’re talking about a period production,” Pynkoski said, “we’re talking about any period. What we’re talking about is trying to understand the original intention of the librettist, of the composer, of the choreographers. And not copy it, but still, trying to understand it and see how that can inform our interpretation of that work.”

The company emphasizes unusual operas with compelling and challenging stories and music that powerfully backs these narratives. Frequently, this means masterworks that have been ignored or lost, like those that were squelched after the French Revolution because they were underwritten by monarchs who had become discredited.

Dance is integral to Rameau's "Pygmalion" and other Opera Atelier productions.

Dance is integral to Rameau’s “Pygmalion” and other Opera Atelier productions. | Bruce Zinger

The two works that Opera Atelier is bringing to Chicago are adaptations of sections from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” “Actéon” concludes with a strong moralistic message reflecting the religious conservatism that pervaded the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and the later “Pygmalion” has a much more libertine sensibility.

“I love the stories that we’re bringing to Chicago,” Pynkoski said. “I think they’re fascinating. I think they’re sexy. They’re strange. And they deserve to be told.”

The performances will feature eight singers who each take on two or three roles in the two operas, including Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth, an Opera Atelier regular who will sing the title roles in both. Because dance is integral to everything that Opera Atelier does, this pair of productions will include 14 dancers, not as mere divertissements but as participants in the stories interacting with the central characters.

Rounding out the ensemble of more than 50 touring performers will be about 30 members of Tafelmusik, a Toronto-based period-instrument ensemble that has long collaborated with Opera Atelier. Because the operas from two centuries require different instruments, the musicians will be split into two groups with some crossover between them.

Opera Atelier has what Pynkoski calls the most active touring schedule of any theatrical company in Canada with regular visits to Asia and Europe, but it has rarely traveled across the border to its neighbor country to the south.

“So, this is an opportunity that we’ve wanted for a long time,” he said, “and it was just the right people and the right venue and the right things coming together.”