Sunday, January 09, 2005

ARTS: Dido & Aeneas

Last night we had the pleasure to see (and hear!) Purcell's Dido and Aeneas performed by the Musica Angelica baroque orchestra at the Norton Simon Museum. This most famous of Purcell's operas (from 1689) makes it clear what a shame it was that he died so young (at age 36). He wrote in the Middle Baroque period, a generation before Bach or Handel arrived on the scene, with few but Monteverdi preceding him. Parts like "Fear no danger to ensue" in Act I take Renaissance-reminiscent melodies and elevate them to Baroque. The music is heavenly, and the work exemplifies opera at its best, zooming in on the most emotional and dramatic moments of a story, with the rest of the plot painted with just enough suggestive brushstrokes. The vocals were all enchanting, with clarion Catherine Webster beginning the opera as Belinda (Dido's handmaiden), an intense Ellen Hargis singing Dido, and Daniel Plaster as a pure and stately Aeneas. The work was not so much staged as sung with a bit of dramatic blocking, but the effect was just enough to suggest the picture. (The Sorceress, sung by mezzo Moira Smiley, placed a black mesh scarf over her head, which was a nice visual effect.) It was wonderful to hear this music performed with the period orchestra, including lute, guitar, and harpsichord along with the more familiar strings.

The acoustics in the theatre at the Norton Simon were wonderful. We sat in the last row of the upper balcony, but aside from a low hum from the central heat, we could have heard a pin drop on stage. And with the beautifully soft and mournful "When I am laid in earth" from Dido at the end, we practically were hearing a pin drop (or a heart break). Afterward, it was delightful to be able to wander some of the museum's galleries, especially to see the marvelous Romanelli tapestry cartoons of Dido and Aeneas.

The story is a classic that many have put their spin on (Virgil, Justin, Marlowe), but I'm surprised that no one modern has picked it up. While the traditional focus is on Dido, Aeneas could be such a modern hero faced with an existential choice of clashing values -- love or duty.

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