Review: BEMF's Dido and Aeneas

Plus the BSO's Schumann and Harbison, Haochen Zhang, and a Concert for the Cure
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 7, 2010

MORE THAN TECHNIQUE Nineteen-year-old Haochen Zhang’s sensitive musicianship belies his age.

Henry Purcell was lucky. Although some of the music from his only fully sung opera, Dido and Aeneas (circa 1688), may be missing from the earliest score, what we have left is one of music's glories — a tightly knit hour-long drama based on the encounter in Virgil's Aeneid between the prince of Troy escaping from his fallen city and the queen of Carthage. Purcell adds an evil Sorceress and her coven of witches pledged to bring about Dido's ruin. There isn't a wasted note. One hundred and seventy years later, Berlioz composed an epic opera on the same subject. Mark Morris set one of his most compelling dances to Purcell's opera, in which he played both Dido and the Sorceress, revealing the self-destructive impulse inherent in each of us.

Dido was the Boston Early Music Festival's third annual staging of Baroque chamber operas, and music directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs wanted to flesh out this "trunk" by adding other Purcell music, mostly dances, to fill in where the original libretto indicates places for music. Two choral "Welcome Odes" now bookended the opera. But this lesson in 17th-century performance practice diminishes the dramatic urgency, and I particularly regretted having to listen to anything else after the profoundly moving final choral lament for Dido.

The malevolence of Mark Morris's Sorceress was both comic and dangerous. Stage director Gilbert Blin gave us only the comedy, with tenor Jason McStoots and the chorus of witches playing for easy laughs, cackling and whining instead of really singing. Canadian mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell had a stiff regality as Dido but neither the voice nor the emotional depth for Dido's great final aria, "When I am laid in earth," a kind of proto-Wagnerian Baroque "Liebestod" (see below). Pudwell might have been better suited for the Sorceress, which she's also sung. As Aeneas, Douglas Williams had a solid vocal center but sounded a little strained at the far ends. Aeneas is something of a cipher, and Blin's emphasis on Baroque gesture didn't help Williams find the character's center. As Dido's lady-in-waiting Belinda, Russian-American soprano Yulia Van Doren had a pretty, chirpy voice, the production of which seriously inhibited her diction.

Neither the lavish costumes (some created — and perhaps more appropriate — for BEMF's 2005 world premiere of Johann Mattheson's 1710 opera Boris Goudenow) nor the dainty Baroque dancing seemed sufficient compensation for the extended length. BEMF's orchestra is a tight ship of period-instrument stars: O'Dette and Stubbs on lutes and (for one energetically improvisational dance accompaniment) guitars; Robert Mealy, Cynthia Miller Freivogel, Laura Jeppesen, and Phoebe Carai the impressive strings; and Avi Stein on harpsichord. The chorus had its best moment in the encore, Purcell's vigorous harvest hymn from KingArthur, the last line of which here celebrated not Purcell's "Old England" but BEMF's New England.

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  Topics: Classical , classical, Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas,  More more >
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