When Henry Purcell composed Dido and Aeneas (ante 1689), his first and only opera, the art form was still a new sensation and many of our current assumptions about opera did not yet exist. The bel canto idiom of Italian opera had only recently emerged in Venice, and the Italian style’s ancestry in both the spectacle of the Florentine intermedio and the expressive recitatives and madrigalisms of Monteverdi’s works were still readily apparent. In France, less than 20 years earlier (1672) Jean Baptiste Lully had acquired his monopoly on productions of tragédie en musique in Paris, creating a distinct genre marked by syllabic recitatives dedicated to the French language and lively choreographed ballets that sought to express the power and agility of King Louis XIV’s court.
In order to carve out a niche for English opera, like any good cosmopolitan composer, Purcell borrowed the best elements from the French and Italian styles. These he combined with a markedly English emphasis on characterization, a taste that was inherited from the English masque. The result is a style that is effective because of its clarity and accessible enough to be premiered, as this opera likely was, by students at a boarding school in Chelsea. Further, the opera is akin to the modern chamber opera, brief and written for limited resources, encompassing four principle roles, a chorus and an orchestra of strings with continuo. By choosing a work that is within their means, hiring the right people and adding a large measure of youthful creativity, the student-run Harvard Early Music Ensemble has created a successful production of Purcell’s masterpiece which I saw Thursday night.
Indeed, from the beginning the production was surprising. After submitting our tickets, we were directed to sit in an old lecture hall which served only as a waiting area. There producer Schuyler Berland welcomed us and told us to leave their coats behind and enter the theater, the Aggassiz House’s Horner Room next door. While a little annoying at first, the experience was enchanting. The Horner Room has no stage and the audience was split between two sides. When we entered, the orchestra and cast were already present: it was like crossing into another world. The Horner Room, paneled in rich dark wood and with giant windows was lit with that warm golden incandescence that you hardly see anymore. Indeed, in this production, lighting designer Jeff Adelberg eschewed color for a palette that spanned from darkness through the golden incandescent to the brightest white, an effect that brought the browns and reflective background of the room into a high and beautiful relief.
The opera began with a pantomimed French style overture. The movement’s initial slow section, encompassing a long octave descent, and serving as a dark premonition of the opera’s tragic ending, is followed by a faster fugal section accompanying the onstage entrance of Aeneas, played by Jason Ryan (baritone), as he is seeking Rome. Ryan’s stage presence expressed a brave yet good-hearted fearlessness, and his smooth yet somehow earnest baritone (as heard later in the opera) was well matched to his character’s heroic presence.
The first number of act one, Belinda’s aria with chorus, “Shake the Cloud from off your Brow” introduced the audience to Purcell’s innovative chorus. Unlike the typical Greek chorus that interprets the action for the audience, Purcell’s chorus participates fully in the action and plays several different roles including cupids, courtiers, huntsmen, and witches. In this production they spread out among the audience, dancing and singing from the aisles. Although at first the chorus seemed to suffer a little from opening night jitters, but they soon found their pace and reached a nice blend. Most delightful was the ballet scene of the “The Triumphing Dance,” in which the dance was performed not as some stylized baroque courtly entertainment, but as lived performance in which various dancers showed various levels of excitement, insecurity, tentativeness—in all, the chorus just seemed to be having fun. Soprano Liv Redpath’s Belinda was played sincerely and without a hint of comedy (Opera Buffa had not yet been invented in Purcell’s time) and she sang with a powerful, light and agile lyric coloratura that featured excellent intonation—she did the Crimson (she’s a senior) proud.
At the shocking strike of the bass drum at the beginning of the second act the Sorceress (Julia Cavallaro) entered and brought the chorus under her spell. A mezzo, the resonance of Cavallaro’s voice robustly embodied the power of her character. She was followed by the two witches (Tamara Ryan and Roselin Osser) and together, their “The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate” was wickedly funny and dark. The Sorceress then called forth a storm to ruin Dido and Aeneas’s hunting party so that she could then send a witch in disguised as Mercury to command Aeneas to set sail, ending the Act.
In the first number of the third act, “Come Away, Fellow Sailors,” the Sailors are preparing to set sail, but stall to go ashore one more time so that Aeneas can tell Dido that he has decided to leave. At the end of the number the octave descent (this time chromatic) darkly returns as the sailors are told to silence their ladies “mourning with promises of returning though never intending to visit them more.” The First Sailor (Andy Troska) danced and acted the number delightfully and with great exuberance, but he had trouble being heard over the orchestra and against the other voices of the chorus. Soon, after Aeneas delivers his news and Dido sends him away, we hear the famous words that begin the recitative of the final lament “Thy Hand Belinda.”
Giselle Ty’s staging here is remarkable production is built on the idea of masks. The chorus, when it shifts among the different roles, changes to the appropriate mask. Dido, who begins the opera in an anonymous white mask, loses it when she falls for Aeneas. At the end of the opera, when she takes her own life in the final scene(how she does this is never revealed by Purcell) she covers herself with a mask of white, returning to the anonymous white from which she came. The statement is simple yet powerful. Although Dido is the queen of Carthage and the primary character of the opera, it was Aeneas who defined her and ultimately decided her fate, without him, she is no-one. Aeneas does not need a mask. Let’s just say that she is successful in her stated goal of discovering the “raw emotional event.” Heather Gallager’s Dido, throughout the evening, was simply fantastic. She believably played the many different facets of her character with ease, including the fetching naiveté shown at the first blush of love in the first act, setting us up precariously high for the third act’s great fall. Her lyric mezzo was velvety and rich presenting the melodic line and text in a beautiful clear enunciation that allowed Purcell’s tragic characterization to come through.
Finally, the orchestra, led by Music Director Jessica Rucinski at the harpsichord, performed remarkably well throughout the evening and patiently brought out Purcell’s Italian inspired descending chromatic lament with remarkable musical maturity. Most brilliant was Rucinski’s decision to give the repeat of the stunning final chorus “With Drooping Wings” to a voiceless orchestra. I have always felt this final chorus is just too powerful to be trivialized by repetition, and to see Aeneas return to the stage, again seeking Rome, brought a surprising context and closure to what is really only a brief tragic episode in Virgil’s Aeneid. One wonders how the history of opera might have been different had Henry Purcell lived to compose a second opera, might England have had developed its own tradition to link Purcell to Britten?
In all, HEMS’s production of Dido and Aeneas is much stronger than one would expect of a student-run company, but it isn’t the Met either. However, if they continue to present productions well suited to their means, and continue to spend their money wisely on professionals like Ryan, Gallager, Ty and Rucinski, the Boston area can depend on another opera company to present productions of a high quality, even if they are on a low budget.
Final performance tonight.