Would anyone deny that Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s frequently staged and much-beloved Dido and Aeneas is the saddest music in the world? Probably not, but librettist Stephanie Fleischman and composer Melinda Wagner take issue with the story of the Queen of Carthage in the telling of Henry Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate. In planning and writing Dido Reimagined: a response to Purcell’s Lament, a Rockport Chamber music co-commission, which made its Shalin Liu debut on Saturday night, they decided to set the record straight and give the queen a modern woman’s agency. According to Fleischman:
When Melinda Wagner and I first spoke about writing a contemporary Dido for Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet, we knew immediately that our Dido would not partake of the depiction of women imprinted on us by men through the centuries. We knew, too, that Dido’s epic love for Aeneas and her self-immolation in response to what she perceived as his abandonment of her—romantic tropes devised by Virgil and immortalized by Purcell and Tate (for Aeneas post-dated Dido by anywhere between 50 and 400 years)—needed to metamorphose in our hands. We were compelled by the notion of an epic love in contemporary times. What form might that take for a powerfully strong, complex woman of today, who has long realized her full potential in terms of both career and family?…
Our Dido, however, has the power to determine her own fate. I have been lucky enough to keep returning, over the years, to a writing retreat on an island where there are no cars, no shops, only a few houses, and a landscape strewn with ancient rocks, covered with windblown trees, and ringed by sea. Our Dido’s refuge was inspired by my time in this place. Our Dido does not choose death. She removes herself from the everyday world, she chooses solitude.
As the Brentano String Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw presented it, the words and music reflected on “… the power of love, on the passage of time, on loss, resilience, and the restorative power of a disappearing world.” Upshaw, an expert interpreter of challenging contemporary scores, completely mastered (it would seem) the lamenting interrupted-equilibrium-style ariosos, in warm, fresh, cajoling, and keening tones, reigning with diva certitude over the angular and jumpy vocal lines, while the quartet drew from a catalog of effects: motoric grooves (sometimes simulating a motorboat) sul ponticello screeches, glides, scratches, thumps, as well as conventional 12-string warmth.
Sometimes (as in the motoric motorboat) Wagner’s score responded with precise word painting to Fleishman’s five-part, vivid and evocative, irregular, rocky mosaic of free verse. And when Dido “dissolves into the sea,” her voice disappears into the accompimental texture. We heard moments of shimmering, haunting harmony as Fleischman recounts at the end how Dido “keeps coming back/each turning day/in the crash of the waves.” For too much of the time, though Wagner seemed to be channeling anger rather than royal resolve or repose. When a listener can detect recurring thematic material, she feels smart; absent such groundedness, and we drifted on a sonically unsettled sea, they can only imagine how patterns might cohere into larger designs. That made the work feel overlong. But Upshaw, a still-fresh-sounding diva with a winning streak of human vulnerability, always compelled our attention to the story of a modern Dido with agency:
I am not dead
I did not die
Overcome, I did not throw myself
on the funeral pyre—
Much of the text placed us in a seascape familiar to Shalin Liu visitors, and thus the view through the glass back wall felt apposite to the story, but the decidedly upbeat sunny summer fun scenes of glinting water and bobbing boats robbed the spotlight from the Upshaw. Had the wooden screen been closed, we might have entered the depressing and uplifting personal realm of the monodrama with greater empathy. Furthermore, allowing our vision to adjust to the diamonds on the water rendered the program invisible when we looked down. It was one or the other, and I chose the libretto to save my sight and get the text.
The first half, a Purcell and friends potpourri* of songs, arias, dances, and fantasias which violinist Mark Steinberg and his colleagues Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; | Nina Lee, cello had concocted, passed us by very pleasantly.
The opening number, Oh let me weep, from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Z629 (arr. Mark Steinberg), produced some anxiety for the course of the afternoon. This aria should have been the opposite pole-piece to the famous lament which closed the set, but Upshaw sounded rather shaky, and the accompaniment from the Brentano folks seemed deferential and scrawny. Things improved fast. The quartet sounded like itself in the Fantasie section of Matthew Locke’s Suite no. 2 for four viols, and Upshaw returned to accustomed form in number three, Dowland’s charmer, “Come again, sweet love doth now invite.” In Stephen Prutsman’s arrangement (the pianist-composer is appearing at RCMF next week), the combined forces gave complete satisfaction, which the quartet sounding like a super lute consort with sustain and Upshaw regaining the glow of youth. Her perfectly focused instrument projected straight as an arrow, with a light, quick vibrato at phrase endings.
Throughout the alternating songs and instrumental portions, the string foursome produced a warmly blooming, perfectly tuned straight tone, which made the chromaticism in two Purcell fantasias most deliciously pungent. They have been playing this material for years, and the experience told.
The set hardly accumulated to a dramatic effect…or avoided the deja-vu curse. We certainly expected a better setup to the closing Lament than Robert Johnson’s penultimate ditty, The Witty Woman provided. Luckily the poignant Purcell proved the segue with his C Minor Fantasia, Z 738. If Upshaw had then sung “When I am laid in Earth” on a dark stage surrounded by lamenters, the aria might have produced its intended show-stopping effect. Instead, we just heard a beautiful aria well sung.
Rockport’s room with a view can sometimes upstage the music and musicians. It certainly did in this case. Unless management plans to have a future Aeneas arrive as an ancient mariner, please close the woven-wood and metal blinds for this sort of show and assist the artists in transcending the quotidian.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
* PURCELL: Fantasia a 4, in B-flat Major, Z736
LOCKE: Suite No. 2 for four viols in D minor/Major: Fantazie
DOWLAND: Come again, sweet love doth now invite (arr. Stephen Prutsman)
LOCKE: Suite No. 2: Courante
DOWLAND: Can she excuse my wrongs (arr. Prutsman)
LOCKE: Suite No. 2: Ayre
DOWLAND: Weep you no more, sad fountains (arr. Prutsman)
LOCKE: Suite No. 2: Saraband
BYRD: Though Amaryllis dance in green
R.JOHNSON: The Witty Wanton
PURCELL: Fantasia a 4, in c minor, Z738
PURCELL: When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament) from Dido and Aeneas, Z626