|Front Row: Mer Wohlgemuth, Kady Evanyshyn, Chance Jonas-O'Toole
Second Row: Shakèd Bar, Dominik Belavy
Third Row: Myka Murphy
Art is like pornography; we cannot describe it for you but we know when we see it! Last night at Juilliard we experienced ART without a whiff of the "artsy-fartsy". Real art. Or should we say real arts. The art of composition by Henry Purcell, the art of poetry by Nahum Tate, the art of conceptualization, realization, and direction by Mary Birnbaum, the art of singing by the students of Juilliard Vocal Arts, the art of Early Music by Juilliard415, the art of scenic design by Grace Laubacher, the art of lighting by Anshuman Bhatia, the art of costuming by Oana Botez, and the art of choreography by Claudia Schreier. WOW! That was a lot of artistry onstage.
In 2016 we saw three or four iterations of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas--one with Broadway stars, and a couple by small companies. We mostly enjoyed them but can barely remember them. Last night's production stood out for so many reason that we are unlikely to forget it.
It is unlikely that you, dear reader, will be able to score a ticket so we feel compelled to be more than usually descriptive of our experience. Since this is, first of all, an opera, let us begin by praising the young singers. Certain qualities stood out in every single one--consummate skill in the melodic vocal lines accompanied by clear English diction and convincing dramatic performance. The English was sung with such excellent legato that it may as well have been Italian. Projected titles seemed redundant.
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 although the costuming lets us believe that the Sorceress and her witches come from the serving class.
As Dido, mezzo-soprano Shakèd Bar gave a riveting performance as a far stronger Carthaginian Queen than we have heretofore imagined or seen. Every note and gesture and facial expression supported her interpretation. She seemed born to sing the Baroque repertory.
As Aeneas, her somewhat weaker romantic interest, baritone Dominik Belavy turned in a fine performance. He is obliged to be a bit "wishy-washy", agreeing to the false Mercury's demands and then changing his mind. His flowered brocaded suit was in strong contrast with Ms. Bar's "Wonderwoman" costume with thigh high boots.
As Dido's two handmaidens, we enjoyed soprano Mer Wohlgemuth as Belinda, and mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn as Anna. Anna enjoys a charming flirtation with the First Sailor who was here presented as Aeneas' companion and sung by tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole who has a most captivating vibrato. We love the part where Anna leaves a flower for him as she exits the playing area.
Who else could have portrayed the Sorceress but mezzo-soprano Myka Murphy, who erupted with malevolent glee coloring her impressively rich voice. Her accompanying witches were soprano Shereen Pimentel, mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio, and soprano Britt Hewitt who had the task of deceiving poor Aeneas.
And now, let us set the stage for you. The playing area was surrounded on three sides by the audience and dominated by an enormous faux stone table with seating for guests on faux stone boulders. Places were set and pompously correct servants dressed in glittery black brought the food. Guests wearing wild costumes and even wilder wigs and headgear devoured food with their hands or ate in slow motion.
What a strange court this is! What a disorienting effect! We seemed to be in another world completely, as if on a planet invented by a science fiction cartoonist. Shall we call it Baroque Sci-Fi? In any case it was a world that could conceivably contain sorcerers and witches and evil powers.
All these courtiers were played by the superb chorus which comprised, in addition to any principals who were not featured in any given scene, Joan Hofmeyr, Richard Pittsinger, Santiago Pizarro, Carlyle Quinn, William Socolof, Luke Sutliff, and Maggie Renée Valdman. Chorus Master David Moody made sure that their singing was impeccable, as was their diction.
We surmise that the singers had extensive dance training since they executed the choreography with style and grace.
Maestro Avi Stein conducted members of Juilliard415 from the harpsichord. Joshua Stauffer was a standout on the theorbo and we could not imagine this work better played. We were very comfortable with the interpolation of extraneous music by Purcell; these additions filled out the characters' interaction and provided enough substance to make the work sufficient for the evening, instead of using it as a curtain raiser for another one act opera.
We are always happy to have our prejudices overcome and to enjoy a work in English. Aside from Arthur Sullivan, we can think of no other English composer who so effectively matched the rhythm of the English language.
Another prejudice against "reinterpretation" was overcome, thanks to Ms. Birnbaum's astute and timely choice to bring out the power of the two women-- Dido and the Sorceress. This Dido is no victim! There was a jaw-dropping ending in which she emerges from the fiery pit and stalks offstage. There was no violation of the spirit of the work and for this we are grateful.
This outstanding production will be going on tour to England and France; we are thrilled that the company is getting such recognition and that more people will get to enjoy it.
We would like to share the news that Ms. Birnbaum will be directing La Bohême at Santa Fe Opera this summer and we will be there to see what sort of originality she can bring to that warhorse. You, dear reader, will be the first to know.
(c) meche kroop