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‘Dido’ hits the right notes

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

March 12, 2010

GRAPHIC BY Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

The first performance of Henry Purcell’s definitive work, the opera “Dido and Aeneas,” occurred in 1689 at a London girl’s school. Three hundred and twenty-one years later, it can still sound fresh and lively if it’s presented by an organization with as much talent as the Brandeis University Department of Music. Last Sunday’s staging of the classic was a collaboration between the University Chorus, the Chamber Choir and a collection of guest musicians. Under the direction of Jason McStoots and the baton of James Olesen, the groups managed to put together a very enjoyable show, and my greatest complaint was that it was over all too quickly.

The story of “Dido and Aeneas” is adapted by librettist Nahum Tate from a legend most famously presented in Book IV of the “Aeneid” by Vergil. It opens with Queen Dido planning to meet and eventually marry Aeneas to restore stability to her nation of Carthage. However, the evil Sorceress and her coven of witches hope to drive Aeneas away, and they trick him into believing that the gods are calling him abroad. Dido is both angry and heartbroken that Aeneas would leave her, so she furiously curses him before killing herself.

The story is fairly simple and old-fashioned, so James McStoots made the decision to modernize it. He claims in the program notes that this is out of deference to the tradition of evolving oral storytelling, but I imagine that ease of staging and costuming also had a large role to play. The updated plot summary is a little cringe-inducing, saying things like “Did is the mayor of a beleaguered city, a city eyed for other purposes by the Sorceress, a greedy and powerful corporate CEO and her minions of lawyers and sycophants.” I read it before the opera began, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to take the performance seriously.

However, it worked well enough, mostly because the staging was so understated. Props and sets were minimal, and a large screen in the background projected grainy city shots before each scene just to set the atmosphere. There were times when forcing the ancient story into the present felt uncomfortable—when the Chorus decorates Dido’s dead body with roses, the dramatic punch is lessened when you realize it’s occurring on a nondescript bench rather than in the midst of her gilded palace. The overall impact, however, was unobtrusive enough that it complemented the music well.

Similarly, the acting was minimal, serving as a supplement rather than a critical element of the production. There were several great moments of levity, such as Aeneas’ exaggerated argument with a manicurist whom Dido and her companions had stiffed for the bill. For the most part, the actors were content to keep their acting merely functional and let the music come to the forefront.

This proved to be a good decision, because the music was excellent and wonderfully presented. Purcell composed in a courtly, English Baroque style reminiscent of Handel, and the opera is full of appealing melodies.

The tricky instrumental interplay was handled by only five musicians: Marika Holmqvist and Karina Fox on the violins, Emily Rideout on the viola, Sarah Mead on the viola da gamba and Frances Conover Fitch on the harpsichord. Using period instruments made the atmosphere authentic, and the musicians’ skill at navigating the complex arrangements made the group sound larger than it actually was.

The singing itself was everything you could hope for in a choir production. Purcell’s vocal lines are heavily ornamented, rising and falling throughout the scale, but the soloists handled them with competence and style.

Aimée Birnbaum ‘10 had several strong arias as Dido’s sister Belinda, and she handled them with aplomb; my favorites were her bright, pleading performance of “Pursue thy conquest, Love” and her soaring rendition of “Thanks to these lonesome vales.” Ethan Goldberg ‘12 ably brought Aeneas’ conflicted loyalties to life despite a difficult role that forced him into both tenor and baritone ranges.

The highlight was the show-stopping performance by Mariah Henderson ‘12 of the opera’s most famous selection, Dido’s dying lament, “When I am laid in earth.” She has a wonderful voice, and she sang the slow, sorrowful number with just the right combination of pathos and restraint to make it effective. Henderson was at her strongest at the opera’s most emotional moments, a good quality to have for portraying a character as troubled as Dido; from the opening “Ah, Belinda, I am press’d,” she made the Queen’s internal struggles the focal point of the opera.

The Chorus and Choir sounded great during the ensemble pieces. More than just background singers, they contributed choruses that provided heft to the most dramatic moments; for instance, the vicious “Destruction’s our delight” turned them into witches, complete with sinister cackling. They also punctuated the strongest melodies, taking the beautiful duet “Fear no danger to ensue” between Birnbaum and Claire Arkin and injecting a powerful climax.

The entire performance of “Dido and Aeneas” lasted only an hour. When it was over, I felt like I could easily sit through it again. Despite the vast differences in ages and lifestyles, the collaboration between professional musicians, my Brandeis peers and a centuries-old composer proved to be fruitful.

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