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Purcell in the Time of Purell

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Detail of Dido (Nathaniel Dace)

Way before any intimations of Covid 19 floated in the air, I had already planned the Boston 2020-2021 season, with a focus on Woman, hashtaged #SheToo. Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell’s only opera, indeed figured in this planned cycle of three productions, for several compelling reasons. For starters, presenting a superb early opera, dedicated to the fate of an abandoned woman, powerfully embodied the season’s theme. 

But by reviving this chamber piece [begins online November 14th HERE], we were also marking an important in-house anniversary: the first period instrument Dido in modern times. Joel Cohen directed the 1979 concert production, released on Harmonia Mundi LP ca 1980. The recording caused a big stir, catapulting Camerata onto the international scene, and heavily influencing later interpretations. 

I was also keen to continue our ongoing explorations of stagecraft. Music theater now forms a regular part of Camerata’s mission. Finally, we were ready to field a very strong cast of Camerata long time regulars, new invitees, and a high-achieving student ensemble from my ‘home’ teaching institution, the Longy School of Music of Bard College. 

Then the pandemic hit.

Perhaps this terrifying moment offered a good opportunity to examine not only the staging, but also the relationships among images, sound, and live performers. Our Media and Light Designer Peter Torpey and I (Daniel, The Night’s Tale, Tristan and other recent productions) had been talking about such an opportunity for a while, and, willy-nilly, in its tragic way, the moment presented itself. Adding a cinematic component overcomes some of the limitations on creating intimate performance during this distanced time. We also re-examined Nahum Tate’s libretto, and started dreaming about what we could do with this marvelous Purcell piece. 

Dido 2020 combines two independently produced elements: our principal cast and band, recorded in live, staged performance augmented by silent images, filmed outdoors, on location.

No public will attend any of this in person, but the final product will reach everywhere. Between November 14th and 29th, you can see, online, an expressive hybrid visual world that is at once theater, film, and digital. You will be able to watch it as many times as you want (provided you bought yourself a ticket! HERE.

Our principals will be performing in the same room, but, because of the current health situation, distantly. That is the first sense of our ‘distanced lovers’ subtitle. 

Even absent the Covid emergency, Purcell’s opera emphasizes separation. We imagine Dido and Aeneas as distant lovers. Unlike Virgil, Purcell does not really let us see a couple, together, happy. As Professor Ellen Harris reminds us, there are no love duets, (see: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Second Edition by Ellen T. Harris, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2018). In Purcell’s work we only hear and see only one full conversation between the lovers. That encounter, a violent rejection, ends with Dido’s death. 

Nothing can replace the joy and buoyancy of being in the same room with a live audience, experiencing the music together. And yet, distant lovers often connect via letters, pictures and calls. Our small-screen show will provide its own kind of intimacy.

Since its debut at a girls’ school in 1683, the opera has enjoyed and suffered from variant readings, different incarnations of the sorcerer (man or woman?), and various re-assignments of solo songs. I consider the essential qualities of variation/reinterpretation as part of the actual life of the work. And, in keeping faith, we offer our own admirative remaking. 

To be sure, certain aspects of our production: the instruments and their style of playing, the use of period English pronunciation — adhere to our reading of the 17th-century norm, and to our love for that manner. Other aspects of the staging and filmography, including our casting of artists and staging, costumes, give us a great opportunity to rethink our mission as artists, individually and collectively. And, even, to advance joyfully!

Dido and Aeneas: An Opera for Distanced Lovers – by Henry Purcell from Boston Camerata’s 1980 recording

“Dido and Aeneas: An Opera For Distanced Lovers”
directed by Anne Azéma , with Peter Torpey (translated by Joel Cohen)

The Boston Camerata – Anne Azéma, Artistic Director
Music and Stage Direction: Anne Azéma
Lights and Media Director: Peter A. Torpey   
Cameras: Jonathan Williams, Paula Aguilera
Sound: David Griesinger

Dido, Queen of Carthage: Tahanee Aluwihare
Aeneas, Trojan Prince: Luke Scott
Belinda, Dido’s Sister: Camila Parias
Sorcerer: Jordan Weatherston Pitts

Second Woman: Kendra Comstock and Morgan Ashkenazy
First Witch: Monica Rajan
Second Witch: Angie Tyler
First Sailor: David Mather

Sarah Darling, concertmistress
Susannah Foster, second violin
Anna Griffis, viola
Phoebe Carrai, cello
John McKean, harpsichord

Assisted by singers from The Longy School of Music of Bard College

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