We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


The cast of Dido and Aeneas in the Catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery
(photo by Kevin Condon)

On the front cover of the program for Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, producer Andrew Ousley (of Death of Classical and Unisom Media) expressed his feelings about death and remembrance as eloquently as one could have imagined, giving us a clue about his regular musical presentations in crypts and catacombs. More appropriate than macabre, these radical stagings leave us feeling that life is finite and music is one of the best means of celebrating it.

The conclusion of Purcell's opera would be familiar to most opera goers. Queen Dido of Carthage kills herself but asks her handmaiden Belinda to "remember me but forget my fate". It is arguably one of the best Baroque arias in the canon. Here it was movingly sung by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack whose prodigious vocal chops are matched by dramatic ones. Belinda was portrayed by soprano Molly Quinn whose instrument is a finely focused one that reaches to the stratosphere and tickles the ceiling. Their overtones bounced around the walls of the catacombs of Green-wood Cemetery where 120 guests were privileged to share a unique collective experience.

Purcell composed the one-act opera for performance at a girl's school in the 1680's with libretto by Nahum Tate, based on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid. We have seen it at least four times in the past two years and every time certain liberties have been taken. In this iteration, director Alek Shrader (best known for his terrific tenor) has incorporated additional text by Christopher Marlowe and introduced the character of Iarbas (the low resonant tones of Paul Greene-Dennis) whose attentions toward Dido are consistently rejected.

We have noticed a tendency, in the last few versions we have seen, to portray Dido as a strong independent woman, not a victim of Aeneas' abandonment. Here Aeneas was finely performed by Paul La Rosa. It is interesting how stories evolve with the times!  

The unfortunate Trojan Prince Aeneas is led astray by a Sorceress (Vanessa Cariddi) and her two witches (Erin Moll and Alyssa Martin) who reminded us of nothing more or less than Macbeth's "weird sisters". We never find out why they have it in for Dido but they do. They employ base trickery to fool Aeneas into believing that the gods want him to go to Italy and establish Rome. And they do this with intensely valid vocalism.

Dido's sister Anna was sung by the excellent Brooke Larimer and the cast was rounded out by Marc Molomot and Kannan Vasudevan as Trojans accompanying Aeneas.

The musical values were undeniably magnificent with these gorgeous voices accompanied by expressive music. Leading from the harpsichord was Music Director Elliot Figg. Adding to the string quartet was the haunting viola da gamba.

Dancer/choreographer Liana Kleinman added some graceful modern dance to the mix.

Production values contributed a great deal to the overall effect. The catacombs themselves provided the setting with the action taking place at one end of a long tunnel; entrances and exits occurred through side doors which led to crypts occupied by the deceased of various families from the 19th c. There was a small raised platform for the performers and Tláloc López-Watermann's evocative lighting was perfect. Fay Eva's costume design was also perfect with Dido wearing a slender red gown contrasting with Belinda's white one. The three witches wore black with suitably terrifying makeup by Ivey Ray. They created a stunning stage picture.

With such splendid musical and production values, it is sad that so few people will have the privilege of witnessing this stunning sold-out event. It is also a shame that the long narrow space does not lend itself to good sight lines. We see no way around this dilemma. The tenebrous space creates a mood like no other and the acoustics are beyond wonderful.

Mr. Ousley's events are always greater than the sum of their parts, the parts in this case including a pre-opera whiskey tasting and a post-opera torch lit stroll down from the heights of the cemetery. Lest you, dear reader, imagine that my enthusiasm for the evening was colored by inebriation, rest assured that we left our share for the angels.

(c) meche kroop

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