Dido and Aeneas

LA Opera's Dido & Bluebeard

La-opera-dido-2014* Notes * 
Los Angeles Opera presented a double bill of Dido and Aeneas (Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles pictured left, photograph by Craig Matthew) and Bluebeard's Castle last night. The juxtaposition of these two works is pleasantly odd. Conducted by Steven Sloane, the orchestra could have sounded slightly crisper in the first piece, but the lushness of playing for the second piece suited its atmospheric score.

Director Barrie Kosky's production is from Frankfurt Opera, and certainly looks it. The set is attractively minimal, a pleated wall and long bench rather far downstage for the Purcell, and a rotating slanted circular platform for the Bartók. The use of lighting and choreography rather than video projections is welcome.

Kosky certainly did not lack for ideas, though some were unsettling, especially in the first offering. Countertenors are employed as the Sorceress and Witches, and it is disconcerting that all three happen to be bearded African American men in unflattering gowns, while the protagonist is a trim, blond white woman. Dido stayed on stage for the last chorus and gasped as all the singers and orchestra members left the pit one by one. This is, of course, opposed to the text of Dido's last aria but certainly commands attention.

The singing for Dido and Aeneas was good. The chorus sounded sprightly. G. Thomas Allen (First Witch) sounded warm. John Holiday's countertenor is also rather resonant, and he made for a disturbing Sorceress. Kateryna Kasper sang Belinda with much clarity. Liam Bonner was a prettily reedy Aeneas. Paula Murrihy sang Dido with conviction. Her voice is lucid and beautiful.

The staging of Bluebeard is a similar mixture of concrete and abstract depictions. We see blood, tears, gold, and foliage, all referred to in the libretto. There are not, however, any actual doors. Instead three identically suited men show up at different points and all sorts of theatrics ensue. It is impressive how much glitter pours from one man's sleeves for the third door. All three men drip water from their jackets as a representation of the lake of tears behind the sixth door. All rather imaginative, but the movements for the two principals required a great deal of physicality, and seemed a lot to ask for as the piece has serious vocal demands as well.

Robert Hayward was a plaintive Bluebeard. There were brief moments when he was difficult to hear given the volume of the orchestra and how he was facing as the stage turned. Claudia Mahnke makes for a sympathetic Judith. Her voice is strong and piercing without being harsh.

* Tattling * 
I was shamefully late for the performance, but was seated during "Ah! Belinda, I am prest with torment."


MMDG's Dido and Aeneas

MMDG_Dido&Aeneas_08_Credit_BeatrizSchiller  * Notes * 
The Mark Morris Dance Group (pictured left, photograph by Beatriz Schiller) opened the new season at Cal Performances with Dido and Aeneas yesterday evening. The audience seemed completely rapt by the experience, and I have never attended a Baroque opera with so little fidgeting or noise. Morris fills all the music with choreography, so there is not a moment in which audience members feel comfortable speaking, especially since the work is only an hour long without an intermission. The dancing is unsentimental and not overly pretty. Limbs were thrown about at angles, and looked rather different on each of the 12 dancers. There were times when the choreography was much more like miming than dancing, and Morris is not shy of being crude. Humor was infused into many of the scenes, especially when dealing with witches or sailors. The dancers characterized their different roles clearly.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra started off less crisply than usual under Mark Morris himself, but did often sound lovely. There was a slight squeaky quality to the dance at the end of Scene 2. The chorus also sounded fine. Since all of the singing was from the pit, most of the soloists sounded a bit like they were singing from the bottom of a well. Soprano Yulia Van Doren (Belinda, First Witch) sang prettily, and soprano Céline Ricci (Second Woman, Second Witch) was distinct from her. Brian Thorsett sounded bright though not hefty as the Sailor. Philip Cutlip (Aeneas) sang with warmth and lightness. Stephanie Blythe gave a vivid performance as both Dido and the Sorceress. Her voice has both volume and gravity.

* Tattling * 
The audience members around me were almost completely silent and no electronic noise was noted.


Confess the Flame her Tongue Denyes

Susan_Graham_Credit_Dario_Acosta * Notes * 
Yesterday in San Francisco, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performed the first of six performances celebrating Henry Purcell. The evening started with his "O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song," Chacony in G minor, "Hear My Prayer, O Lord," and the Suite from Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge. Conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan, the playing was buoyant. The Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, was also in fine form. Most of the soloists featured in the first half are members of the Chorale, with the exceptions of sopranos Cyndia Sieden and Céline Ricci. All sounded lovely, though Ricci did not clearly enunciate the words of "Lucinda is bewitching fair," in the Suite from Abdelazer.

The semi-staged Dido and Aeneas that came after the intermission was entirely gratifying. The orchestra was splendid and together, as was the chorale. Cyndia Sieden was sweet and bird-like as Belinda, and only had the slightest gasp during "Pursue thy Conquest, Love." Céline Ricci was a good vocal foil as the Second Woman, her voice being warmer but her coloratura more effortful. Ricci overacted and moved a great deal, even swaying her hips to the music. It was not very becoming, considering she had only a few lines by herself, but it was easy enough to ignore her. Sieden and Ricci were amusing as the two witches. Tenor Brian Thorsett also had two roles, as the Spirit in the likeness of Mercury at the end of Act II, and the First Sailor at the beginning of Act III. He was able to give very different characterizations for each.

Jill Grove was an imperious Sorceress, her low notes were rich, but there was some strain and lack of smoothness in her higher register. Baritone William Berger (Aeneas) has a pleasant sound, and he held his own against the incredible Susan Graham (Dido). Their exchange in the last act was heartrending. Graham sang with a facile beauty, yet with a stately grace in keeping with the music.

* Tattling * 
They seemed to skip the chorus near the end of Act II, though the text was printed in the program. The audience was well-behaved, though I did hear one watch alarm near the end of the performance.


Review of Urban Opera's Dido and Aeneas

Scharich-dido This account of Urban Opera's Dido and Aeneas comes to us from someone who only wishes to be known as Don Curzio.

* Notes * 
A pleasure it may be to witness the first performance of a new local company, and it is a pleasure, but Urban Opera may need a little time to fulfill the ample promise shown in its inaugural production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Despite the presence of a spirited and talented cast, the evening had to overcome a fair share of directorial and designer mishaps. Chip Grant, the artistic director of the new company, made the strange decision to include the rarely performed prologue, the music of which is lost. The Prologue was thus performed in spoken dialogue, nearly all of which was rendered inaudible by wind, echo, and ambient noise. After this lackluster opening (and a well-staged pantomime during the overture depicting the fall of Troy) the evening settled down into a basically traditional performance with clever (the use of puppetry in the boar hunt; the jolly Sailor being one of the witches in disguise) and not so clever (choristers holding up newspapers with the headline "WILL ROYALS WED?", the only bit of anachronistic imagery in the production) bits of business. The costumes, by Kue King, ranged from interesting to bizarre to horrible. Dido, for example, wore an ornate belt with an arrow protruding out of either side of it, indicating she had been struck by Cupid's arrow. The Sorceress strutted around in a feathery contraption that would have looked right at home at a Cher concert, and everyone wore bizarre headdresses that seem to have been borrowed from a local Wiccan coven.

Musically, thankfully, things were more interesting. Chip Grant conducted the small orchestra (a string quartet plus keyboard) far more assuredly than he directed. The young mezzo Kindra Scharich used a lovely lower range and a lush, warm sound to create an affecting Dido. Todd Wedge was a masculine and steadfast Aeneas, putting a supple tenor to use very pleasantly in a role usually sung by baritones. Milissa Carey, an actress with a background in music rather than a professional singer, camped it up nicely as the deliciously evil Sorceress. Kimarie Torre was a sparkling Belinda who dueted very nicely with Pam Ingelsrud's Second Woman. Grant chose to cast Countertenors as the Witches, who doubled with the Spirit and the Sailor. Michael McNeil, in fact, was asked to sing as a soprano as the Second Witch and a tenor as the Sailor, and his thin voice was pleasurable in neither register, though he acted his assignments well. He was utterly shone up by the strong alto of Cortez Mitchell. The small chorus sounded excellent, and were very threatening as the witches.

The outdoor performance area, in an elevated plaza between two Mission Bay office buildings, proved a mixed blessing indeed. The acoustics were surprisingly good (the singing was all audible), the site of choristers frolicking through the tall grass and bamboo trees behind the main performance area during the forest scene was quite intriguing. It also cannot be denied that watching Aeneas exit towards his ship with San Francisco Bay stretched out behind him says something for realism. But some of the sightlines were often compromised due to the vastness of the playing area, and it was easy to miss important bits of business happening stage left if you were sitting stage right because it was too far away to notice. However, despite all the production issues, it was a promising debut for the new company.

* Tattling * 
The small seating area was completely full despite relatively high ticket prices and I heard no cell phones and little talking. There was a baby present who fussed once or twice, but in general the house was well behaved.