Of my take on Longy’s performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, let’s start with the conclusion: Go to Pickman Hall tonight! (Sat. Dec. 14) It’s free. If you can’t go, watch the live stream here.
Across the Square from where last weekend the Harvard Early Music Society performed Purcell’s opera, this weekend the Longy’s Early Music Department is staging a very different production. This historically grounded approach swept us back to the 17th century in its portrayal of graceful courtiers and the regal queen (heightened of course with fiendish witches and drunken sailors). The richness of the scenes was brought out by details of gesture and motion, sumptuous costuming and delightful dances, all drawn from careful study of period sources.
Harvard’s modern staging was informed by contemporary symbolism, emphasizing the universality of the story, that it has meaning in our postmodern 21st century. Longy’s production drew on period staging, dancing and performance. The story speaks for itself—love, betrayal, heartbreak—but it is the grandeur of a court scene and the poised bearing of bejeweled nobility that transports us to another era. All elements were joined together to create a resounding sense of wonder and delight. We feel sorrow for the tragic queen but also awe at her strength and poise even in death.
The young cast brought it off beautifully. There was occasional unevenness in some of the singing, but the singers’ poise and grace filled the stage with visual and aural impact. Every turn of wrist and finger and even ankle seemed the result of scrutiny of illustrations of stagecraft of the time. Choreographer and Dance Master Ken Pierce has steeped himself in the treatises of the era, and together with the work of Stage Director Carol Mastrodomenico and Music Director/Conductor Dana Maiben, all levels of detail were brought together in an exhilarating performance. (Disclosure: Maiben is a friend and Brandeis colleague).
One of the striking differences between the Harvard and Longy performances is that Longy used three harpsichords, balancing documentation and practicality. According to Maiben
There are quite a number of historical pictures/paintings/drawings/diagrams of 17th– and 18th-century opera pit bands with a couple of harpsichords. … Some maps I’ve seen of opera orchestras have a harpsichord in the pit on each side of the stage, as well as a cello and bass player. … We found that a single harpsichord can be hard for the singers to hear, and gets lost in the choruses. With several harpsichords and harpsichordists, each can accompany different characters, or team up for a fuller sound. So the singers can hear their accompanists better, and the audience gets a more balanced sound. … I like to conduct from the harpsichord so I can accompany some of the solo songs; and I have the option to conduct or play, whatever works best for each number. I conduct most of the choruses to help keep the band with the chorus.
The result was evocative, a vivid, swirling surround sound as motives are carried from instrument to instrument. Maiben pointed out that “All three harpsichords are based on Italian 17th-century models, which tend to have a more prominent pluck, more excitement of the string.” In the program Maiben quotes Purcell’s 1683 statement that he was aiming to imitate “the most fam’d Italian Masters.” The result was excitement indeed, and very tight ensemble. Also notable was a small organ, whose timbre, at the appearance of the Sorceress and her retinue, evoked Monteverdi’s Orfeo as he descends into the underworld.
Another really lovely touch was the viola da gamba and theorbo onstage in the pastorale scene, adding to that gathering’s intimacy. And nothing says “seventeenth century” more emphatically than a theorbo. Striking in appearance, its distinctively plangent timbre was effective, with the low notes adding pungency to Dido’s entrance in her famous lament, following the stark statement of the descending bass line by the viola da gamba. (Theorbist Menglin Gao doubled as chorus member.)
The bowed strings were one to a part, which gives clarity to the rich polyphony as well as bringing out the edgy, startling dissonances of the dark scenes with the sorceress and witches. This gave a lot of solo exposure to Concertmaster Yi-Li Chang (in the Friday cast), who carried it off with confident virtuosity; all the string playing was at a highly professional level.
The tradition of disparaging Nahum Tate’s libretto has been receiving some needed revision
Much is very beautiful in this text—the musicality of the poetry, the intensity of the scenes—but the plot does have confusing moments, as in the pastoral scene when Aeneas stalks off and brings back that giant boar’s head. Luckily this was not realistic. Well, he’s trying to impress his lady fair, but she takes no notice because of the impending storm, which of course is the plot of the witches. So Aeneas is left standing awkwardly with his “monster’s head.”
Longy’s apparently felt is supertitles are unnecessary for English opera. Yet some of the text is going to become clear only from being read. When the witches sing, “In our deep vaulted cell, the charm we’ll prepare/ Too dreadful a practice for this open air,” these unlikely words are unlikely to be picked up no matter how skilled the singers. The origins of printing the libretto separately are as old as the origins of opera. It’s a worthy goal to understand a lot of the text as sung (and I did), but a written source is required to get all the words. The music adds its own meanings and expressions, and the literality of the words is always going to be obscured. At least the detailed program notes were informative.
As Dido, Dana Kephart was striking with her beautifully fluid and expressive voice, rich with inflection. She conveyed a wonderful feel for the regal. This is a voice that will make its mark on the early-music world. Aeneas (Lawson Daves) sometimes waivered in his legato but was effective in many scenes and convincing in noble bearing. The exchanges with Dido, leading up to his departure, built with fervor.
As the Sorceress, Rhaea D’Alieso was another vocal standout (both casts). She was brilliant in expressing devilishness through gesture and body language, and definitely a voice I would love to hear in any musical context. The sinister retinue of the sorceress entranced us through their fiendish dance and song. As Belinda, Erica Maas (Friday) offered the necessary empathy to the tragic queen and real charm in her song to the group in their outdoor enjoyment. As the Second Woman, Carley DeFranco had poised stage presence, and her duet with Belinda “Fear no danger” lilted, full of charm.
The staging and gestures of the cast also did much to set the tone, for instance the final sumptuous tableau a compelling illustration of solemn grief.
I went to the Thursday dress rehearsal in order to hear the Saturday cast. Lauren Frick will offer a very different Dido, as her luscious voice is destined for a larger stage than Pickman auditorium. She, too, has regal bearing, yet breaks into true joy when at last she smilingly yields to Aeneas. In the final lament her grief is underscored by vocal power. Fausto Miro as Aeneas offers a strong counterpart with his burnished tenor.
With either cast, the performance overall was moving and memorable.
Two years ago the Harvard Early Music Society and the Longy Early Music program each performed an Italian 17th-century opera within a week of each other. If both ensembles are staging operas every other year, could one of them perhaps do an opera next year, so the norm can be for them to alternate years?