Henry Purcell might not have approved Mark Morris’s contemporary take on Dido and Aeneas, which the Celebrity Series brought to the Cutler Majestic Theatre last week, but he probably would have recognized it for its formality and anti-naturalism. The opera, completed by 1689 and based on what was little more than a footnote in Virgil’s Aeneid, concerns the betrayal of Dido, the queen of Carthage, by one of the great explorer warriors of ancient times. A jealous Sorceress tricks Aeneas into forsaking his lover. Dido proudly rejects his offer to ignore his own destiny and stay with her. When he sails away, she immolates herself.
The opera condensed mythology’s elaborate plot line, omitting the storms and shipwrecks, the politics of Mediterranean empires, and the rivalries of the gods, to concentrate on a love affair stained by fate and character flaws. Mark Morris reduced it even more, to eliminate the costumes, sets, and dances of Purcell’s Baroque period. For his production, now almost 20 years old, he devised a modern masque for dancers in black sarongs and sleeveless tops. What’s “authentic” about this Dido and Aeneas is its formal movement style and the choreographic interaction of chorus and principals. And the fact that it honors the music even though the fine singers and orchestra of Emmanuel Music, conducted by Morris himself, were out of sight of the audience.
All the stage movement is severely stylized, even the pantomime gestures that resemble their literal antecedents. When it begins, two women are seated stiffly on the ends of a bench. Behind them, nine other dancers are standing in a line. During the overture, the chorus advances downstage with rapid but imperceptible tiptoe steps and grandiose arm gestures. Like everything else that follows, each gesture is self-contained and bang-on a musical beat, and carved into the surrounding space like a frieze on a Greek amphora.
Dido’s confidante Belinda (Maile Okamura), shaking her hands at the end of outstretched arms like someone shooing away chickens, urges her friend to shake off her despondency and welcome Aeneas (Craig Biesecker). When the hero arrives, the chorus dances and the lovers move closer together with an almost stealthy eroticism. It’s like a standard ballet counterpoint between principals and ensemble, but the visual and rhythmic relationship is also a dramatic one.
Morris takes advantage of all the libretto’s poetic contrasts to add variety and comic effects. Dido voices her forebodings while Belinda and the chorus offer entertainments and pleasant prospects. The witches conduct their malevolent revels while the court goes on a picnic. Lauren Grant, the smallest, earthiest member of the company, leads the sailors in a drunken going-away party. When the assistant witches (Elisa Clark and Noah Vinson) celebrate the success of their mischief (“Our plot has took. The Queen’s forsook.”), their hugs and high-fives are as patterned as a gavotte.
Casting Grant in sailor’s drag is a charming conceit, but it isn’t really shocking, because Morris’s players have few individual differences. The small chorus of dancers play all the roles — courtiers, witches, sailors — as do the singers. The choreography modulates from decorous to sinister to rollicking, but it’s always perfectly harmonized.
Morris himself played both Dido and the Sorceress in the first performances, demonstrating his performing prowess as well as striking a blow for sexual transference. After he stopped dancing, he assigned the dual role to a male and a female dancer for alternate performances. Without his stellar presence, the dual casting puts an anachronistic post-Freudian interpretation on the story. Dido as a closet villain doesn’t seem to occur to either Purcell or classical mythology.
On Wednesday in Boston, Amber Darragh played the Queen majestically and the Sorceress with malicious raunchiness. At one point she had to switch from one character to the other almost without leaving the stage, but I saw her transformation immediately.