|Kelli O'Hara and Victoria Clark (photo by Erin Baiano)|
Henry Purcell's first opera, first performed in 1689 by students in a school for young ladies, lay dormant for two centuries, but we have seen three performances of this seminal work this season. The one we saw last night at New York City Center had the largest audience by far. The large theater was packed and the audience enthusiastic. Much of the credit lay at the feet of Master Voices, the group formerly known as The Collegiate Chorale. They have, apparently, a huge following and tackle a wide variety of genres.
Not for nothing did they cast the major female roles with famous Broadway stars who were lavishly costumed by the designer Christian Siriano, whose fame was flaunted in the press. We say "Anything goes if it brings people to the opera!"
The glamour took nothing away from the musical values. Kelli O'Hara made a sympathetic Dido and Victoria Clark's star turn as the Sorceress brought shivers of wicked delight. They both sounded terrific and if their voices were amplified it was done with subtlety.
Canadian baritone Elliot Madore sang with honeyed tone and created a fine believable Aeneas such that we wanted to shout out "Don't fall for that false Mercury!" In Nahum Tate's libretto, which does not completely follow the story as told in Virgil's Aeneid, poor Trojan Aeneas is tricked into abandoning Dido, Princess of Carthage, in order to found Rome. Or so he is told by the false Mercury, enlisted by the Sorceress. No reason is given for the Sorceress to have such enmity toward Dido. We have missed Mr. Madore since he graduated from the Lindemann Young Artists Program and were very very happy to see him onstage once more.
Dido has two handmaidens--one is her sister Belinda who encourages her to consider Aeneas as a suitor. In this role, soprano Anna Christy, a favorite of the Santa Fe Opera where we have thrilled to her performances, has a gorgeous high clear voice with a beautiful timbre. The second handmaiden was performed by Sarah Mesko, whose lovely chocolatey mezzo voice graced the stage of the Santa Fe Opera as well.
Tenor Nathaniel Dolquist was given the role of the First Sailor; his aria was the one spot of humor in this very sad opera. Aside from singing it well, we might add that his every word was understood. The same can be said for Mr. Madore. We realize that higher voices are more difficult to understand and for this reason we feel justified in our sole complaint of this excellent evening--titles were badly needed. One tends to feel the way one does when listening to an opera in a language that one only half knows. One catches a word here and there and figures out the essence of the meaning but one wishes to hear and understand the entire thing.
There was a surprisingly delightful addition to the program. Since the prologue to the opera was lost long long ago, the task of writing one was given to Michael John LaChiusa who wrote both music and lyrics for "The Daughters of Necessity: a Prologue". He used every skill he possesses from his Broadway experience to write something that was both artistic and accessible.
He created a scene that reminded us of the Three Norns in The Ring Cycle. Three very funny Norns, as a matter of fact. He calls them Fates. The first, Nona, sung by Ms. Mesko, spins the thread of life and is focused on the past. The second, Decima, sung by Anna Christy, measures the thread and concerns herself with the present. The third, Morta, sung by Victoria Clark, cuts the thread at the time of death and is, therefore, the one determining the future.
The punchy dialogue about life, love, and death worked extremely well with the music written by LaChiusa, which was interspersed with baroque music. Much of the humor came from the Fates' interaction with the Master Voices, arranged upstage in tiers. There was a running joke of Morta and her scissors ending the lives of various choristers who fell from the ranks and collapsed on the floor, to be hauled away. One of them, trying to avoid the deadly scissors, fled upstage. Ms. Clark's flair for comedy was impressive.
The singing of the chorus was exemplary and much of it employed such good diction that we got most of what they were singing. They seemed like a true Greek Chorus, commenting on the action and interacting with the singers.
No less could be said of The Orchestra of St. Luke's who performed superbly under the baton of Ted Sperling. Purcell's music has never sounded so fine!
If we did not have such antipathy toward barefoot modern dance, we might have found more to enjoy in the choreography by Doug Varone. His athletic dancers lept and spun and rolled around on the floor. They also moved the minimal furniture and interacted with the singers. Clad in black, they mostly moved as a unit. Our companion thought they added something to the performance.
It is not necessary to know the political atmosphere of the 17th c. but it is interesting. Purcell was born at the time of the Restoration and scholars have "found" an allegory in the story. Dido is said to represent the British people while Aeneas represents James II. The Sorceress is said to represent the repressive Catholic church, luring James to abandon his subjects by denying them secular entertainment. Welcome Charles!!
This makes us wonder what is going on today that makes this story of deceit of a ruler by evil forces so relevant. Hmmm.
(c) meche kroop