ever since i watched its trailer i’ve been searching to find a copy of anthony harvey’s 1968 masterpiece, The Lion in Winter--set in the christmas of 1183 as king Henry II (peter o’toole) plots to choose an heir from his three sons and finds, among others, a formidable foe in his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (katherine hepburn’s performance is blistering). coincidentally, the week i did finally watch it was the same one marshall pynkoski and jeannette lajeunesse zingg of toronto’s Opera Atelier announced their upcoming collaboration with the Palace of Versailles’s Royal Opera House (ROH) to produce french composer andré grétry’s comic opera, Richard Lionheart. the production will be part of a season marking the 250th anniversary of the ROH at versailles, with a special invitation that brings pynkoski (director) and zingg (choreographer) alongside an internationally acclaimed roster of performers. one of grétry’s most renowned comic operas, Richard Lionheart (Richard Coeur-de-lion) was written in 1784 and was a pioneer of the rescue opera. the plot unfolds as a dramatic prisonbreak of Richard I, son of the aforementioned Henry II and king of england from 1189, from an austrian prison. it is widely acknowledged that the character of Florestan from beethoven’s Fidelio was inspired by the prison governor of the same name in grétry’s Richard Lionheart. as well as in tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, the Countess sings ‘Je crains de lui parler nuit’, the same aria sung by Laurette (Florestan’s love interest).
Our approach is so different from what you’d find from the 20th and 21st century approach in Europe, which is often driven by a concept of the opera whereas we are entirely driven by text and storytelling. Not that we think it is better or worse, but that it is something else entirely. We’re interested in narrative and we want to tell stories as clearly and succinctly as possible. “” marshall pynkoski, excerpt from the interview below
the invitation of zingg and pynkoski to what is not only one opera’s biggest stages, but the grandest theatre for baroque opera, is an affirmation of Opera Atelier as one of the leading permanent baroque opera companies on the global stage. the duo will be working alongside an extraordinary cast that includes: conductor hervé niquet and Le Concert Spirituel (a choir and orchestra ensemble), costumer camille assaf, and set designer antoine fontaine (who, among many spectacular projects, designed the set of sofia coppola’s Marie Antoinette).
i had the opportunity to talk to zinng and pynkoski about the significance of this invitation, their on-going relationship with the ROH and what they’ll be bringing to this production (full interview below). Richard Lionheart will run from october 10th-13th 2019 at the Royal Opera in versailles.
how did this collaboration with the Royal Opera House (ROH) come about? and what role did the Canadian Cultural Center in paris play?
Pynkoski The Canadian Cultural Center came in after the fact as we have a long-standing history with Royal Opera House in Versailles. We’ve toured there on six occasions--over the last decade--and when we tour we do so with as many as eighty people: with all of Tafelmusik, all of our corps-de-ballet, all of our singers plus our technical team, wig people, makeup people, everyone. It’s a huge undertaking. We’ve built a wonderful relationship with the directors there, but this is the first time Jeannette as myself have been invited independently of Opera Atelier. Though Opera Atelier will continue touring to the ROH on a regular basis with productions that we do here in Toronto. The artistic director got in touch with us, saying that this is a particularly important piece, it’s the first time the ROH is producing their own opera rather than presenting a work since it was reopened. It’s also celebrating the 250th anniversary since the ROH was built to celebrate the wedding of Marie Antoinette and the future Louis XVI. So we were really thrilled and honoured to be working with people we knew very well. It was just a question of our being able to fit this into our schedule here with Don Giovanni in the fall. With regards to all of the touring we do: we have never had an agent, nor anyone representing us or trying to find touring for us. All of the touring that we’ve done over the past twenty-five or so years has been people who have come to us--either because of conductors who have worked with us or people seeing our work online and approaching us.
what is the personal significance of this invitation to you and what does it suggest about relevance of baroque opera in North America?
Zingg A few years ago we were in Paris when a dreadful terrorist attack happened and we were performing Armide--which, interestingly enough, is about muslims and christians actually getting along and falling in love--we had a huge gathering afterwards and the director of the ROH said he felt that Opera Atelier and the new world was bringing their own work back to the old world and inseminating it more throughout the world than anybody else. So I think we are really seen as the people that love and respect French baroque repertoire as they wish it would be treated.
Pynkoski And I think it has to do with the fact that it’s very clear that we love this repertoire, we want to treat it with enormous respect and this is one of the things that has made our work so attractive in Europe. Our approach is so different from what you’d find from the 20th and 21st century approach in Europe, which is often driven by a concept of the opera whereas we are entirely driven by text and storytelling. Not that we think it is better or worse, but that it is something else entirely. We’re interested in narrative and we want to tell stories as clearly and succinctly as possible. This is actually highly unusual. I think it is recognized as unusual, and people appreciate it very much.
what’s it like working with Antoine Fontaine?
Pynkoski He’s an extraordinary man. In fact we’ve already worked with him when we were invited to the Salzburg festival to produce Lucio Silla with Marc Minkowski. We travelled there with our own dancers, it was really very exciting. That was the first time that we worked with Antoine, we are very much on the same page. He’s someone who has a tremendous knowledge of history and respect for history; but at the same time he uses it as a take-off point to create something new. Which is what we want to do as well, we don’t want to be a museum, something make-believe. The same way that Balanchine took 19th century ballet and used it as a take-off point to create an absolutely American expression of ballet. His work is still completely rooted in the imperial school, but it doesn’t mean it was a museum piece, his works were a catalyst and we want to feel that this work is a catalyst as well. He’s a great guy and we’ve had ample opportunity to collaborate with him, Salzburg has a such a spectacular budget that Jeannette and I were flown to Paris two or three times just to have intense design meetings with him rather than skyping. It was amazing.
Zingg And we worked with him again at La Scala, we know him very well and we get along very well, he’s just a very talented and wonderfully collaborative person.
by coincidence i’ve just watched anthony harvey’s 1968 The Lion in Winter which is set in the middle of medieval ages, a period known more for it’s rugged aesthetic that pomp and ceremony of the Romantic era; what challenges do you anticipate with conveying the aesthetics of that period?
Pynkoski That film’s a classic! When the opera had its premiere in the 18th century, there wasn’t as much interest in creating historically accurate productions as there is now, people really did enjoy a work of their own world, in terms of fashion and aesthetics. Some of the original costume design exists in our production, with people are wearing white powdered wigs and so on. What I think is intriguing about Richard is how modern a piece it is, much more modern in many respects than something by Mozart. Mozart is very much a courtier in terms of how he writes, what he writes, even though he’s breaking rules. But Grétry was someone who was embracing the whole naturalistic school--it feels more like Rousseau--getting back to simple stories that are told simply rather than recitative or spoken dialogue. Beautiful and simple melodies, the sort of thing that is again reminiscent of Rousseau, that the French language is a difficult language to sing--we should be speaking with full orchestra and then saving the singing for arias. That’s very much what Grétry has done, and it included beautiful dance music that represented the dancers of the 18th century.
Zingg Though we’re not actually setting it in the medieval era, and of course we’re not pretending Richard Couer de lion lived then. With the choreography, Grétry even put in some waltzes because Richard was kidnapped in Austria and in 1784 the waltz was the big rage there, so he’s giving it local colour. He very much is anticipating the Romantic era, both in the medieval subject matter and in the idea of local colour, he definitely meant the dancing to reflect his time.
Pynkoski And that is very important France at that time as the medieval period was just becoming incredibly stylish, incredibly chic; people were becoming interested in interior design but they were also interested in history. England also had an enormous appeal, every well-dressed man in France was tailored in England, the greatest compliment you could have given someone in France was to tell them they looked British. It was a very interesting time when the French thought that by being British they were getting back to nature, they were being natural, getting away from the artifice of the court. The choice of Richard I think reflects that.
what drew you to André Grétry and to his Richard Lionheart in particular?
Pynkoski When you encounter Grétry’s music for the first time, it’s these beautiful melodies, singable tunes, the kind that lives with you and stays in your head--orchestrally there’s probably a great deal that is going on at times--but it seems he prided himself on artless simplicity which was the height of sophistication. It is important music, it’s gorgeous music and it was incredibly popular at the time. It’s just that as we move through the Romantic era--and we’re still living through the Romantic revolution--Grétry has become something of a footnote. The ROH has put together a fantastic cast, and a very important orchestra and conductor, it says everything about people wanting to explore this music and find out more about it. Personally I had no interactions with Richard The Lionheart other than seeing The Lion in Winter, but I have always been fascinated by the interest that the late 18th century took in the medieval period in terms of decor, both onstage and in people’s homes. It was such an interesting departure at that time.
Zingg I am really excited about choreographing in that period, its when baroque and ballet were really merging in that period. Auguste Vestris, the great dancer, was in the original Richard Lionheart, and we know a lot about his techniques because of the writings of August Bournonville. So it’s a really interesting period for us and one that we look at a lot.
what is your working definition of the opera comique? and what are some of the challenges choreographing spoken word?
Pynkoski To begin with, opera comique includes dialogue. The closest that we’re going to get to watch theatre and the opera comique in the late 18th century is by looking at great American musicals of the 20th century. They fit together beautifully, no one thinks it strange that they are breaking into song, of why there is a ballet happening...we suspend our disbelief and are taken into another world. If you can choreograph and direct a musical, you can choreograph and direct a late 18th century opera. Richard Lionheart also has a very strong comedic side. There are real commedia dell'arte in it, and the French adored the Italian comedian. At the time this opera was written, there was a wonderful merging of tragic and comic operas. People weren’t looking for consistency of character, they weren’t looking for dramatic art. You can take everyone of these scenes and you can perform it on its own as a separate piece in its own right: when Grétry suddenly decides that we need something comic, suddenly we have a comic scene. Then he wants to get back to something that is sentimental and will touch people’s hearts. Going in and out of character inexplicably is something you just don’t do by 21st century standards, whereas back then they would have said there is no ‘character’ to go in or out of. It’s not what they were doing--it’s not that they didn’t understand the concept--it didn’t interest them.