Old works find new audiences

Globe and Mail
4 October 2019

Eighteenth-century operas and paintings by old masters continue to have relevance for today’s audiences

An art exhibition on a painter circa 1630 and an opera by Mozart circa 1780 can still enthrall audiences today.

There’s something about Rembrandt’s Leiden period and Mozart’s Don Giovanni that resonate in modern times, and Canadians now have a chance to experience both.

“I think human beings have changed very little,” says Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic director of Opera Atelier and director of the upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Fashion changes but people don’t.”

Whether they’re wearing powdered wigs or jeans and T-shirts, people still fall in love, feel jealousy and engage in duplicitous behaviour.

“So, we can allow these works to have their own life, to breathe,” he says, “and amazingly enough, if we tell the story well, people will find themselves in it.”

With a new Rembrandt exhibit at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University and the upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni coming to Toronto, it’s a chance for Canadians to see why the old masters still reign today.

Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni is considered one of the great period ensembles, but it was never meant to be serious. The new production from Opera Atelier, which runs Oct. 31 to Nov. 9 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, brings the opera back to its roots: as a comedy, and a lowbrow one at that.

Mozart himself referred to Don Giovanni as “opéra bouffe, the lowest form of comedy,” Pynkoski says. It’s about a playboy who falls in love with every woman he sees, and every woman falls in love with him … until something goes terribly wrong.

“Although he is the hero, he’s the classic anti-hero. He’s the Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde; he’s the bad guy everyone loves.”

Often, productions of Don Giovanni are dark and dramatic; but Opera Atelier has taken a different approach.

“It’s our insistence on it being a comedy, and it’s a comedy about young people,” Pynkoski says.

“Like all comedies it has moments of great drama, but the driving force is comic.”

And it’s not just about opera. Mozart loved dancing, Pynkoski says, and Don Giovanni captures that. In the 18th century, a large ballroom would feature several orchestras in different corners of the room. Mozart “brilliantly recreates that” in Don Giovanni by having three different dances happening at the same time.

Opera Atelier specializes in baroque repertoire and its productions are performed on period instruments by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. They also incorporate dance and theatrical staging.

“An opera is supposed to be a celebration of all the arts, like a great Broadway musical — great singing, great lines, great actors,” Pynkoski says. Whether you go to see Phantom of the Opera or Spiderman, “either the audience is on their feet or it’s not working.”

Rembrandt Emerges

Rembrandt van Rijn is another old master still relevant today – and this year marks 350 years since his death on Oct. 4, 1669. To commemorate the ‘Year of Rembrandt,’ the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston is featuring a special exhibit, Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges.

It’s the only exhibition on Rembrandt developed in Canada, featuring works from the Agnes collection and from collections across North America.

“It’s a great time for the Agnes to do this because we have really become a hub for the study of Rembrandt,” says Dr. Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the exhibit’s curator and a researcher of European art at the Agnes.

There’s a reason why people continue to study Rembrandt.

“He had a very intriguing and, some would say, very modern life,” Coutré says.

“There’s something about his biography that still captures us; he had a rebellious, independent streak in him.”

He also had great confidence in his own abilities, which sometimes led to conflicts with his patrons, but that “very much appeals to the modern sensibility,” she says, “the ability to know that his work would be appreciated if not by the person who commissioned it, then by other people in the Dutch Republic.”

And then there’s his art. Rembrandt, like so many of his peers, took inspiration from great tales — from ancient history, from the Bible, from Greek mythology. But he humanized his subjects, like Judas, with his hands clasped in “incredible desperation” after betraying Christ.

Even in an age-old story such as this one, there’s “something very human about that,” Coutré says, “that incredible sense of regret and remorse that transcends time, and the humanity he captures in these stories.”

The exhibit features 33 works of art, including paintings and prints, and provides a “great entry point” for those new to the old masters.

It’s also free to the public, “so it’s an incredible opportunity for people … to see the works of an incredible artist for free.”

The exhibit runs until Dec. 1 in Kingston; and from there it will tour across the country, starting in Edmonton.

Link to the original article.

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