Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Dido and Aeneas for Paranoid Times

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival
Opening Night Gala
Theatre at St. Clement’s
Hell’s Kitchen, New York City
March 12, 2016

Order in the kingdom but not for long
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Louisa Proske’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the companion piece in this year’s Heartbeat Festival, is a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Heartbeat Opera co-founder and co-visionaire Ethan Heard rose to the occasion with a striking and thoughtful new take on a Baroque favorite.

Aeneas woos poor Dido
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a fantasia on the classic story of Dido the Queen of Carthage’s tragic fall that is very loosely based on the canonical version of the story found in Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only does Jove intervene, as is the case in the Virgilian source material, but a chorus of witches does as well, just to ensure with extra certainty that Dido meets the demise she is fated. It becomes a double fate. An unnecessary addition to the already tragic plot becomes a sadistic experiment in inevitability. There is hardly a sadder heroine to be found in the history of western literature and dear old Purcell and his librettist double down on her hardship. It would be despicable if the end product weren't so absolutely delectable.

Director Ethan Heard follows suit and playfully doubles down. In a brilliant move he double-cast members of Dido’s coterie as the witches. The uncanny was to be found all around her. It was unsettling really. The opera opens in a sort of gala reception to welcome the arrival of Aeneas and his men in Carthage. A foreboding joy permeates the scene. The evil that lurks beneath the surface, however, only emerges once the party dissolves. Dido retires to her chamber that prominently features a bear claw footed bathtub where an extended seduction scene takes place between the otherwise independent Carthaginian queen and her soon to be Trojan paramour.

The witches reveal themselves
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The suspicion that members of her coterie seem to be in on it is confirmed when the scene shifts imperceptibly and her entourage shift with it. Slowly and writhingly undressing the men and women in waiting reveal themselves to be supernatural creatures with dark powers and even darker designs on the unsuspecting queen. It was a stroke of genius on the director's part to intuit such insidious presences in the banalities of courtly day-to-day. I found it spot on and a unique take in terms of my experience of this opera. It really worked. The only thing I found a bit amateurish was the extent to which the witches descended into gratuitous debauchery. The main male witch was a knock out in drag but it really didn't seem necessary to have him hump the bathtub so extensively.

The witches humping anything in sight
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The challenge of setting this Baroque court entertainment is what to do with all of the extended musical interludes besides stage them as pure pageantry. Good portions of this opera consists of frolicking choral passages that are largely out of step with any kind of contemporary musical taste and are a far cry from the kinds of avant-garde musical virtuosity Heard and his collaborators gave us last time. Nevertheless, they struck on solutions. Some were more successful than others. Among my favorite moments were those in which members of the small chamber orchestra left their perch at the rear of the stage and strolled as though in a sort of demonic processional around the proscenium. As per his usual, Heartbeat Opera co-musical director and violinist Jacob Ashworth struck a dashing stage presence as he led the revelry with violin tucked under his chin.

"When I am laid in earth..."
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Ask anybody and the answer will be unanimous. The highlights of the opera are undoubtedly the two primary arias of the poor victim of the story. Carla Jablonski’s Dido was a stately dame with the instrument of a mature singer cut out for stages much grander than this one, which made it a pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting. Her “Thy hand, Belinda” was emotional. It is a track that is often on steady rotation in my Baroque Lamentations playlist and tingle every time I hear it. Jablonski did more than do it justice, particularly in the context of Heard’s dramatic setting of the piece. The whole tone of the evening focused in on the poor heroine who was about to breathe her last. We end up with Dido in the bathtub beneath a lone light bulb dangling from a cord. And everything closes in on her. Darkness surrounds.
Dido laments her fate, and we with her
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
But I have to admit that in Heard’s hands more than just Dido’s two showpiece arias emerged as the the evening’s takeaways. The last ten minutes of the show were utterly sublime. As Dido gives up the ghost and her sister Belinda looks on in amazement something truly remarkable starts happening. A chorus of newcomer singers to evening’s show suddenly began to come out of the woodwork. As it turns out this extended chorus had been dispersed throughout the audience from the beginning, unbeknownst to any of us. Slowly they stood up one by one as the final hair raising choral passage send shivers down our collective spine since it was sung from all around us. Magic. I had goosebumps all over my body. The implications were intense. The suggestion is that like Dido we too could be surrounded in our daily lives by ordinary people whose bodies have been snatched by evil spirits who are plotting our demise like poor Dido. It was aesthetic pleasure with a kick: real reflection went into this.

Thank you, Heartbeat Opera, for all of the thrills. There is something special happening here: boiling opera down to its most fleshful and life affirming essence, not to mention delivery copious surprises along the way.

– Lui

The landscape isn't what it seems
Photo credi: Russ Rowland

Witches lurk in the most unexpected places. Look around you.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Dido buffeted by forces greater than herself
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

No comments:

Post a Comment