“This was Craig’s, now it’s yours.” That’s what was written on the card that came with the present — Craig Smith’s “maestro” towel — that the Emmanuel Music musicians gave their newest conductor, Mark Morris. It wasn’t the only thing that belonged to Morris. The Celebrity Series of Boston ended its season last weekend by bringing Morris back with his Dance Group in Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. At Dido’s Boston premiere, which reopened the Majestic Theatre in 1989, Craig Smith conducted the Emmanuel chorus and orchestra, with heartbreaking, heroic Lorraine Hunt (not yet an alto or a Lieberson) and the magnificent baritone James Maddalena singing the doomed lovers, and tenor Frank Kelley singing (or cackling) the Sorceress, Dido’s nemesis and alter ego. (Morris himself danced both roles — now both parts are danced by either Amber Darragh or Bradon McDonald.) Soprano Jayne West sang Dido’s loving sister, Belinda.
This time, the singers (in the orchestra pit) included, as Dido, soprano Kendra Colton at her most ravishing and full-hearted, and Donald Wilkinson, vigorous and agonized as Purcell’s not very sympathetic hero. West was still a lovely Belinda — she and Colton both have relatively light voices, so they really sounded like sisters. Deborah Rentz-Moore made an impressive, ripe-toned Sorceress, and Kelley was back, and a delight, as the “boozy” sailor. Pamela Dellal (also returning from 1989) and Kristen Watson sang smaller roles beautifully.
Nahum Tate’s libretto has some memorably silly dialogue. When Dido guilt-trips Aeneas into disobeying the gods’ orders, her pride refuses to accept his change of heart: “Away, away!” she commands. “No, no, I’ll stay!” he insists. They keep repeating these rhymes. Colton made a poignant distinction between her angry dismissal (“Away!”) and her sorrowful final realization that Aeneas is really going “away . . . ”
Morris didn’t take an opening bow, perhaps wanting to keep the spotlight focused on the dancers and singers. But he led with Smith’s remarkable combination of gravity and buoyancy. He got the orchestra to embody, even caress, each phrase. He found and maintained the rhythmic life not only in Purcell’s teasing, earthy jollity but also in his profound solemnity, providing sympathetic support for dancers and musicians alike. The final moments, the tragic funereal procession of Dido’s sister and subjects, were exquisite in their slow dissolve. Of course the center of the piece is Morris’s extraordinary choreography, but this was the rare Dido you could love even with your eyes closed.
Jeffrey Rink has just ended his 18th and final season as music director of Chorus pro Musica. He’s already completed his first year directing the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra. He’ll be missed — especially his series of accomplished concert operas, landmarks of Boston’s recent musical history. His swan song (though the program says he’ll be back to conduct next year’s CpM Turandot) was the opera he began with in 1992, Carmen, and his conducting was, once again, stylish, incisive, colorful (Julia Skolnik, flute, and Martha Moor, harp, in the atmospheric second entr’acte, for example), propulsive, witty, and — when called for — grandly tragic. The chorus, and the NEC Children’s Chorus, sang with verve — and good French. And the superb orchestra was on its game.