Palace of versailles

Toronto couple bring neglected opera house to life at Palace of Versailles

Two Torontonians are at the heart of the first opera created at the Palace of Versailles in Paris since 1789.

Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic directors of Opera Atelier in Toronto, received a letter from Versailles Spectacles last year. which carries out all the cultural programming of the grand palace built by King Louis XIV at the gates of Paris.

In honor of the 250th anniversary of the opening of the Royal Opera House at the Palace, Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg have been invited to conduct Richard Lion’s Heart (Richard Cœur de Lion) by the Belgian composer André Grétry (1741-1813).

From its creation in 1784 until the turn of the 20th century, richard was one of the most popular operas in Europe. Grétry set to music Michel-Jean Sedaine’s libretto on the crusading King of England, imprisoned in Austria, in a new and simple style that prefigured Romanticism.

The version presented at Versailles is the simplified version of 90 minutes in three acts by Grétry. It had its premiere in Paris at Christmas in 1785.

The opera was so successful that by 1797 it had made its way to Boston. It may also have contributed to the demise of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, during the French Revolution.

On October 1, 1789, the royal guards organized a party for the king; after a little too much wine, they launch into a lively interpretation of “O mon roi” from Grétry’s opera. The news reached the anti-monarchist revolutionaries in Paris, who five days later forced the royal family to leave Versailles for good.

It was also the last time that music from this opera was heard within its walls.

Beautifully restored a generation ago, the Versailles Opera regularly hosts visiting companies, usually focused on works from the Baroque era.

Opera Atelier’s productions have been presented five times over the past few years.

For the 250th anniversary, Versailles Spectacles has chosen to produce its own opera for the first time. There will be four performances, from October 10 to 13.

“Our history with French opera led them to ask me to direct and Jeannette to choreograph,” says Pynkoski. But this time it’s not an Opera Atelier production.

“Virtually everyone in the production is French, from the singers to the dancers,” says Pynkoski.

He and Lajeunesse Zingg will rehearse Mozart’s Opera Atelier fall production for two weeks Don Giovanni in Toronto before packing up for Paris for a month of rehearsals and performances at Versailles. They will be back in time for more Mozart rehearsals and will open Don Giovanni at the Ed Mirvish Theater on October 31.

“It’s the craziest program we’ve ever had,” Pynkoski said. While working with the singers offsite, Lajeunesse Zingg will have the dancers rehearse in the palace itself, in a repurposed ballroom for ballet rehearsals.

“We have a beautiful view of the gardens. It’s like heaven, frankly,” she says.

All casting was done via Skype, YouTube and email. “I’m shaking hands on the first day of rehearsals,” Pynkoski says, laughing that he hadn’t met his cast before.

In a nod to authenticity, Versailles-based design guru Antoine Fontaine sourced sketches of period productions to aid the set designer and costume designer.

But as with Opera Atelier’s period shows, authenticity “is just the starting point” of their work, says Pynkoski.

The four performances at Versailles are the only ones scheduled richardrenewal. Pynkoski admits there have been conversations about bringing him to Toronto.

“But because Opera Atelier only presents two productions per season, we have to think very, very carefully about how to do that.”

Everything will also depend on the reaction of the public in October.


Classical music writer John Terauds is a Toronto-based freelance contributor to the Star. It is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds


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