The NEC Opera Studies Program closed its year with a double-bill of one-acts, Strauss/von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It was a fully-staged affair in the Cutler Majestic Theater: three performances, professional direction, sets, costumes, pit orchestra — the works. I saw the April 30 performance.
Strauss/von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos tells the story of Theseus’s lover, whom he abandoned on a desert island en route to Athens. But it takes a roundabout way of getting there. It’s a pre-post-modern telling: a composer is commissioned to write an opera on the Ariadne story for a private party. It’s to be performed on a double-bill with a clown act. At the show’s start, the performers argue about who should go first: will the high opera be demeaned by the low comedy, or will it put the audience to sleep and deprive them of the jokes? These questions are soon made irrelevant, as the performers are told they must play simultaneously, so as to allow the revelers to get to the fireworks display that much sooner. (What a party!) Everyone scrambles to figure out how to make things work so they can still collect their performance fees.
In its full version, one gets to see the mash-up performance; this staging only included the prologue. As played, it had the feel of a backstage farce that was just warming up. Actors and collaborators duck in and out of doors, conspiring against each other. This production was sung in English, using a translation by Tom Hammond, with revisions by Nicholas Muni. While it made the proceedings more immediate, the translation felt very literal, sometimes to the point of being clumsy.
The performers came off best during moments of isolated transcendence. Mollie Adams’s Composer sung of his search for God through music. When she hit the loftier tones, you went there with her. Jennifer Caraluzzi’s Zerbinetta had some coquettish moments, but most of the prologue’s bawdy bits didn’t gel. Kelly Kuo’s orchestra flowed smoothly between subtle underscoring and Romantic Grandeur.
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is well-known for its music. But first, let’s take an opportunity to appreciate the librettist. Nahum Tate’s text may not be ostentatious, though it is sturdy, elegant, and highly musical. Anyways, this opera concerns the tale of another woman abandoned by her lover. Its tragic nature is explicit; death looms from the opening bar, which follows a straight line to the closing lament and Dido’s death. Even as she fell for Aeneas, their separation didn’t feel far off.
The singers — Cristina Bakhoum, Thomsa Suber, and Emily Brand sang Dido, Aeneas, and Belinda, respectively — sounded very lovely, light and delicate, though their diction didn’t always make it into the house. As actors, they seemed to have the manner of ghosts floating on stage. They felt more like masks than characters.
The set placed the action in a circular pit, filled with black sand. Risers on the far side accommodated the chorus, though they flowed in and out of the action as needed. The chorus was dressed in cloaks, which they removed to augment the set in different ways. They switched easily from Druidic onlookers to beach revelers. Nonetheless, the production was permeated with gloom. When Dido reached her demise, it felt like an afterthought, not the final turn in the tragic machinery. Both operas highlighted how awfully easy it is to be serious. The real challenge lies in repose.
Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.