The Intimacy of Dido & Aeneas
Opera Alterna, a spanking new opera company, opened Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas on March 28, 2008, as it's first production. Using the intimate Callan Theatre of Catholic University of America's Hartke Theatre building, this professional opera theater company is presenting young talent predominately associated with CUA, but also Maryland Opera Studio of the University of Maryland. The goal of Artistic Director Jay D. Brock
is to "bring provocative and intimate opera to new audiences." Bravo, shouts the Dresser.
LINING UP FOR OPERA
Imagine her delight, laced with a little frisson of fear, when she arrived at the Callan to see a line of people, some of whom were being told to wait because they were not sure there were enough seats for everyone. Yes, indeed this theater is intimate--only 60 seats. The Dresser is sure that among her readership who attend operas by small companies that all will agree that a respectable showing is twenty-five to thirty people.
To sum up quickly, the story of Dido and Aeneas follows these events. Aeneas arrives in Carthage and courts Dido. She falls for him, but he abandons her to fulfill his destiny in Italy. Heartbroken, she commits suicide. Purcell modeled his opera on John Blow's masque (also called a semi-opera) Venus and Adonis.
What's different about Brock's approach to opera is that he comes from a theater background. That was apparent in how the cast moved and communicated with each other and from what vantage point the players performed. While Purcell's opera has dance numbers, opera aficionados expect Dido and Aeneas to be a static work in which the singers stand and sing but do not do much moving.
UPPING THE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
Perhaps some of the standard audience expectation regarding this first English opera that premiered in 1689 has to do with Nahum Tate's libretto for Dido and Aeneas. Tate based his libretto on Book Four of Virgil's The Aeneid. Critics complain that Tate and Purcell concentrated too much on making the libretto short and thereby lost important emotional content by the main characters. The key scene from Brock's production that will forever be etched in the Dresser's memory is Dido (as sung by Sarah Phillipa) chasing Aeneas (Michael Weinberg) with her suicide knife.
Talk about up close and personal. The Dresser scooted to the edge of her seat as Phillipa-cum-Dido breezed by as she backed Weinberg-cum-Aeneas into the black curtains at one end of the staging area. For a split second, the Dresser believed an intervention was needed against a diva out of control. What played oddly against the Dresser's adrenalin rush was seeing Dido "slash" her wrist and from her wrist fell a ribbon of red paper representing blood. So in that succession of actions, the audience experienced real-time danger (Dido threatening to knife Aeneas in the gut) and theatrical bloodletting that smacked of another era, maybe as old as the opera itself.
Other theatrically inventive scenes included the "shadow puppet" lovemaking of Dido and Aeneas (the couple interact behind a curtain with back-lighting making them appear as shadows on the curtains) and the witches' dance auguring trouble for the lovers. Brock placed a circle on the floor not far from the feet of audience members including the Dresser. The witches annotated the magic circle by chalking it with various symbols. The lead witch used a stick to inscribe the circumference of the circle and to beat an incantation alive. The witches were wild and primal in bare feet. What the Dresser understands is that while Blow's Venus and Adonis had gods manipulating their fate, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas had witches and that witches are an English preference over gods.