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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
Brock.jpg is to "bring provocative and intimate opera to new audiences." Bravo, shouts the Dresser.


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.


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.

LoveScene.jpgOther 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.

Purcell's music, which offers major and minor keys depending on the mood of the scene, was satisfying produced under the baton of Spencer Blank.
Particularly notable about this opera are the two arias 'Ah! Belinda' and 'When I am laid in earth' (Dido's Lament) because they employ a ground bass. Use of a ground bass (Pachabel's Canon is another example) means that the bass line repeats throughout the composition. What makes Purcell's use of ground bass particularly appealing is that the phrases in the vocal line overlap the repeats of the ground bass, and then harmonize with the ground bass in different chords from repetition to repetition.


Generally speaking, Brock's cast of singers did an admirable job in this opera that exposes the voice (the ensemble of 5 instruments never cover the voices). However, the singers could have done much better on enunciation. The Dresser wanted to hear those p's, d's, and t's be emphasized. Stand out singers in this performance were Caitlen Budney as Belinda (Dido's handmaid) and Rachel Evangeline Barham as Dido's attendant. Budney and Barham sang a duet early in the opera with engaging energy and to beautiful effect.

Choreographer Megan Macphee did a good job with the dance numbers and as did the ensemble members in executing the choreography. Particularly pleasing was the way in which the ensemble members made eye contact with each other. Additionally Brock made good use of the Callan Theater by having cast members initiate choral numbers from behind the audience seats and then move into the view. The Dresser felt this added another level of intimacy to the production and is probably what Brock meant in his news release when he referred to "a unique coplanar setting that is designed to draw the audience into the very heart of the conflict."

Jeffrey Levine describes the scope of Dido's love for Aeneas in the following poem.


Gathering in the trees, shadows reach the door,
The lost firebrands of Troy trick-lighting the banisters,

And through graceful depths of night, a half-moon scythes
Some long-ago plains, under which I would be rocked

By your touch, again, you dizzied by mine, aswim
We two, two birds rising though dusts of incompletion.

I carry your absence with me from room to room,
I cross three Africas for you, I who make good

My promises, my throat is heart sized with astonishment
As when despite prayers and furtive kneeling

That boy doesn't call you for a day, cad doesn't send for you
For two, and on the third day the planet crumbles

In a flash of mourning, the great abyss opens
And instantly the year's vaunted scaffolding vanishes

Before your icy body, the construction of the world
Is complete, yet my man has cities to build.

I was to be the angel of your resurrection, you dolt,
The fanfare beloved among all trumpets.

Without answer the crumbling crumbles, the only
Witness that I am given over, damned, by midnight

I had renounced everything there, body, palace,
Oath, in favor of my damnable hope, my fatal hope

That resides beyond the feasts, beyond the city,
Beyond the city's parlor, beyond the boulevards of Carthage,

Beyond the bridge, beyond the grandest parlor, beyond
The ancient walls, past the spearheads littering the plains,

Over there, where roads and streets are unknown.
Here the bereavement starts. You recognize its landscape.

How its roughness speaks to us. I have a goat's
Greediness for it. It promises us thirst, solitude,

It promises us enraged hope. It delivers us wholly naked
Which is to say, the dusts of imperfect gods falling

Beneath a sky filled with clouds, and of what the sky
Is made: of arms, of hands, of fire.

By Jeffrey Levine

Copyright © 2008 by Jeffrey Levine


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 1, 2008 4:53 PM.

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