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Enigmatic and Poignant Dido and Aeneas


Anne Azéma leads harpsichordist John McKean and violinist Sarah Darling. (Dan Busler photo)

In a pleasingly reconfigured Pickman Concert Hall that transformed it into a theater-in-the round, the Boston Camerata infused Henry Purcell’s most beloved masterpiece with new life, immediacy, and meaning. Drawing on a lifelong immersion in Renaissance masques and music, poetry and folklore, Artistic Director Anne Azéma exploited the many timbres of her performers’ voices with the same intuitive ear for beauty and contrast with which she and the composer exploited the timbres of the orchestra’s period instruments. From the start, Belinda’s fresh, clear, airy voice (Camila Parias) combined with Dido’s magnificently rich, earthy mezzo-soprano (Tahanee Aluwihare) drew us irresistibly into a realm of dramatic power. The magic lay in bringing out the beauty of each voice by setting it in the context of the other voices. Girlish and womanly, on the one hand, boyish and manly on the other, or sometimes even marvelously betwixt-and-between, the very sounds of our mysterious human evolution served as so many expressive registers in Azéma’s hands. Co-scenarist Peter Torpey’s subtle manipulation of light effects, in turn, reinforced the magically timeless atmosphere, bathing the story in evocative complexity.

In the guise of a prologue, Anne Azéma stepped forward like a living Sybil to recite Virgil’s lines (Aenead, Bk. VI) evoking Aeneas in the Underworld. She summoned Aeneas himself (Luke Scott), who pleaded with Dido’s still-suffering shade for forgiveness, but in vain. O, stay! Why shun me? The effect of this spoken prologue was decisive, setting the opera narrative apart. It lifted it up into a musical realm with its own parameters of suspended disbelief and enhanced listening.

The formal French Overture – majestic slow, then fast – opened distinctively thanks to breathy violins (Sarah Darling and Danilo Bonina) interacting with a nicely guttural viola (Jenny Stirling), a mournfully sweet cello (Phoebe Carrai), and a courtly but eloquent harpsichord (John McKean). Collectively they asked us to ponder the upcoming story with open hearts. In Act the First, where Dido, Belinda and Aeneas wrestle with emotions and decisions, Azéma drew remarkable musical complexity out of the score through a skillful attention to balances and narrative nuances. The chorus shifted from optimistic cheerfulness (When Monarchs unite) to an almost hymnal lyricism (Cupid only throws the Dart). Aeneas’s compelling argument (If not for mine, for Empire’s sake) rang out with special force thanks to Luke Scott’s sure-footed bass-baritone. We were invited to reconsider how personal emotions and political duties vie and coalesce to shape decisions indivisibly on the historic stage. If Andrew Pinnock is right that Purcell and Tate composed Dido and Aeneas to celebrate King Charles II’s birthday at Windsor Castle in May 1684, the call to act “for Empire’s sake” would have fallen on very alert ears. But the point is that the tension between private desire and public duty has not vanished from our world, it has simply become reformulated. Effortlessly, at every step, the Torpey-Azéma mise en scène teased out the timeless from the historic, the general from the personal, the allegorical from the concrete. As though all of these diverging factors had come together, Act the First culminated in a lively masque-like procession full of unmistakably English cheer (To the Hills and Vales) before concluding with bright optimism in the orchestra (Triumphing Dance.)

Dido Tahanee Aluwihare and Belinda Camila Parias (Dan Busler photo)

With darkened lights suggesting a cave, Act the Second transported us into a Mephisto-like realm of mischief, malice, negation and destructiveness. Following an orchestral prelude played as a parody of French overture solemnity, a delightfully mysterious and sexually fluid Sorcerer with long claws and exceptionally nice diction (tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts) summoned giddy young witches (Monica Rajan and Regina Stronceck) to do his/her/their nefarious bidding – implying that playing with negativity is playing with fire. Oh, the inventiveness of hate! Dissonant and scratchy strings in the orchestra joined the sardonic laughter of the chorus to cast a whirlwind spell around a symbolically empty throne, seat of power and decision-making, reminding us that playful mischief quickly spirals out of control into a Dance of Furies where animal cries and shrieks replace language. We could almost chew on Purcell’s chromaticism.

In contrast, Act the Second Scene 2, unfolding in a grove, spoke to us of the splendor but also the fragility of innocent spring love. Carrai delighted us with a masterful cello pizzicato dance in place of guitar. Belinda’s fresh voice (Oft she visits this lone Mountain) brought to life Purcell’s pastoral gift as Dido and Aeneas enacted a duet of erotic attraction, kissing voluptuously on a boulder at the edge of a forest, as natural as a shepherd and his shepherdess. When the Sorcerer’s darkening clouds and thunder signaled the arrival of a storm, Belinda and the chorus tore Dido away from Aeneas’s arms in order to convey her to safety. Left alone in the Grove, Aeneas seemed suddenly terribly young and vulnerable. Azéma herself stepped forward from directing the orchestra and chorus to serve as the Spirit disguised as Mercury, luring Aeneas to “obey the Gods” by abandoning Dido and sailing off to Italy to “restore Troy.” Aeneas, taken off guard, instinctively submits to the divine decrees. But ah! What language can I try,/ My injur’d Queen to pacify? By emphasizing this key question, Luke Scott conveyed Aeneas’s recognition that no remedy can be found to forestall tragedy. (Like Faust, Aeneas is powerless to protect what he loves from a destruction that he himself brings about.)

Act the Third created a microcosm of humanity’s predicament, with our urge to escape (The Ships), our confused impulses (The Witches) and our shallow but earnest commitment to duty (The Court). Scherzo-like, the famous Sailor and Sailor jig interlude rang out with lust and vitality, comically replicating the tragic main story of seduction and abandonment. Briefly but masterfully singing with his legs, waist and arms as much as with his eloquently versatile voice, Sailor David Mather embodied every youthful adventurer, every sailor in every port, here today gone tomorrow ― young maidens, heed the warning! But it seemed to me that Mather and his two fellow sailors skillfully illumined a deeper point that might well have resonated with Purcell himself. “For the sake of Empire,” a race of seafarers has been bred, dangerously capable but morally uprooted, yearning for new horizons and new shorelines. From Purcell’s Sailor to Captain Ahab to Conrad’s Marlow, lust for life and for adventure has been facilitated by a sort of inevitable callousness ― a propensity to rationalize faithlessness by emphasizing novelty, success, the building of new cities.  Dido delivered the line “No, faithless man, thy course pursue” with admirable force and knitted brows: Aeneas, she implied, was a seafarer from the start, incapable of lasting commitment ― of taking root in solid land.

Sorcery surrounded by audience in Dido and Aeneas (Dan Busler photo)

These multiple allusions and levels of meaning coalesced to give the final scene of Act the Third its full poignancy. Visually suggesting a “cycle of eternal return,” Dido and Belinda wore the clothes of their opening scene. Dido wore her gold-embroidered royal robe. Belinda wore her girlish and demure dress. In my end is my beginning. The seeds of lust and tragedy, along with the dark forces of negation were there all along, but also the unexpected force of love, strong as death, strong as earth. After Belinda removed her royal mantle, Dido sang her lament (When I am laid in Earth) with haunting simplicity and beauty, as she gracefully collapsed like a brilliant red flower at the foot of her own throne. Visual beauty, music, words and meaning achieved an extraordinary coherence of purpose in this famous last scene. The chorus, Belinda and Aeneas gathered around Dido’s expired body like ancient mourners, covering her with a black veil. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate! The Boston Camerata brought Purcell’s Baroque masterpiece to life not only as a personal story of love crossed by fate, not only as a timeless human story of love and loss, but also as an enigmatic and poignant allegory of how seafaring nations have destroyed many a lovely, fragile sedentary culture. Why shun me? Thank you, Boston Camerata for making us feel, think, and discover our present in the past and our past in the present.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a beautiful review that probes larger significance as well as the intimate love story!

    Comment by Heyden White — March 20, 2023 at 11:55 am

  2. Wow! What a review! My thoughts exactly. I have watched this opera several times before and each time I get some new aspect of it.

    Anne and company’s performances were flawless and they seem to be living their roles!
    The musicians were wonderful as usual. So nice to see Sarah. I have met her several times at the Boston Baroque.

    Had the pleasure of meeting Tahanee for the first time. She was much appreciative of my comments.

    I always try to stay after performances to meet the musicians and singers. To me, the concerts are over when I leave the building.

    Comment by Forrest Knowles — March 24, 2023 at 10:32 pm

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