by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
DIDO & AENEAS
PACIFIC MUSICWORKS &
UW CHAMBER SINGERS
Rely upon Stephen Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks to make the familiar fresh and new. Their chamber production of Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - the most frequently performed of Purcell's operatic works -is familiar to every opera-lover, just as Dido's iconic death aria is familiar background music for dozens of shows and films, from 'Justified' to The Man Who Cried. Yet in the hands of Pacific MusicWorks, Purcell's tragic opera sounds surprising, even to those of us who have listened to its gorgeous music and sighed over its sad story for years.
It's always a melancholy joy to hear Dido & Aeneas - melancholy because it reminds us that if Purcell had not died at the age of 35 we would have an English opera tradition to rival the Italians or the French. It's a joy, however, because Purcell's undying music will always fill the ear and the imagination with fabulous images. English opera is distinctively different from other national styles - crisp and vivid, humorous, direct, and cleanly delineated in a way that the lush traditions of Europe are not. Purcell was the master who was leading others into a new way of fusing music and drama for the theater-loving English. It's a miracle he made so much music before his early death, and a tragedy that he did not live long enough to establish the new art form he worked so hard to develop.
Like Purcell's life, Dido & Aeneas is very short - less than half the length of a regular opera. One always wishes it were longer, even though it feels like a complete narrative. The plot, drawn from Virgil's Aeneid, is a bit hasty. The Queen of Carthage falls in love with the Prince of Troy who is fleeing the lost war and attempting to found a new nation. Dido's lady in waiting, Belinda, persuades the Queen to give in to her feelings for the visiting prince. Dido resists the urge; then embraces it. She and Aeneas fall in love and almost immediately part due to the bad graces of a Sorceress who wants to ruin the queen by breaking her heart. The Sorceress sends a false spirit in the form of Hermes to tell Aeneas that Jove demands he continue his journey. Aeneas leaves and Dido kills herself. End of story - except for a very funny hornpipe where the sailors take leave of their girlfriends. It's a brilliant work, melodic and incisive - yet we wish for more.
Pacific MusicWorks gives us more by adding some of Purcell's own music in the form of a prelude and postlude, and by including two magnificent guitar pieces by Purcell's contemporary, Francesco Corbetta, in places where indicated guitar music is lost. Artistic Director Stubbs performed these pieces himself on the baroque guitar - an instrument with a bright, dramatic sound. His array of rhythmic stroking, strumming, and plucking was not only beautiful but fascinating to watch, and the variations on themes intricately braided. Purcell's own musical tribute to King James formed the framing choruses to the opera, with a notable solo by tenor Jakob Jósef Orlinski in 'Why are all the muses mute?' The UW Chamber Choir, twenty-three singers strong, was the echoing choral voice that repeated and developed central ideas throughout the prelude, opera, and postlude, not only with their singing, but with their very active role-playing. It was a delight to see the choristers take such a lively part in the drama, as courtiers, townsfolk, sailors, and abandoned 'nymphs of the shore.'
The opera itself, with its prophetic melodies, has a feeling of doom - somehow we know it will not end well. The opening chorus calls on Dido to 'banish sorrow, banish care / grief should ne'er approach the fair' but Dido is tormented from the first to the last, first from unrequited love, then from abandonment. You don't have to be a queen to know what that feels like - we identify with her longing and anxiety because the slow, heart-rending music speaks to a universal human condition. Soprano Holly Boaz sang the pivotal role of Belinda, Dido's lady in waiting, with a lilting soprano and a vivid stage presence that urged the shy prince to 'pursue thy conquest love.' When it came time to switch sides in the second scene and become a witch, Boaz cackled gleefully over Dido's fate with equal commitment and effectiveness.
As the drama unfolds we see the stolid Aeneas, played with noble restraint by baritone Brendan Tuohy, bamboozled by the false Hermes into leaving Dido, changing his mind and offering to stay, only to be rejected for, as Dido says, having 'once a thought of leaving me.' The great thing about this drama, based on the libretto of Nahume Tate, is that Dido and Aeneas act out feelings more than actions - how we all feel in the throes of love, loss, and rejection. Most of us don't choose death over reconciliation, or blame the gods for making us leave our lovers. But in Purcell's music, moving like waves of hope and despair, we see pure feelings rather than rational behavior acted out. This is a description of most operas, of course - dramatic feelings that put the kibosh on reason - but there's a purity to Purcell's rendition of this iconic story that is especially moving.
A much-needed dose of humor in the midst of all this sorrow was provided by tenor Ross Hauck, who performed the drunken sailor with all the rascality that the lyrics suggest, telling his fellow sailors to take 'a boozy short leave' from their 'nymphs on the shore,' with 'vows of returning / though never intending / to visit them more.' He sallied through his aria like Puck making trouble in the forest of Arden, and gave us a good laugh in the face of tragedy.
Pacific MusicWorks was, as ever, the main attraction of the evening. With only seven players, this brilliant ensemble built a musical palace of unrivaled beauty. I had only two wishes that, if granted, would have made the evening perfect. First, I wish that the text had been either supplied or projected. Even though the opera is in English, it's not your everyday English, and not all the singers pronounced the words with equal clarity. I practically know this opera by heart, but I still would have welcomed an assist - so I imagine those seeing it for the first time would have appreciated having the text as well.
My second wish is that the evening's Dido, mezzo soprano Laura Pudwell, had looked the part a little more. She sang convincingly - though her rendition of the great death aria was, for my taste, too loud to be lovelorn - but we don't really think of Dido as a gray-haired lady wearing glasses. As my opera buddy said, 'There was some cougar action going on there.' Granted, this was a concert version, which means that visual elements like costumes and sets are suspended. But Dido is a fiercely proud, passionate queen in the throes of erotic love. The production needed to be a little more persuasive on that score in order to meet the splendid heights of Purcell's deathless opera.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!