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.