Juilliard Opera Theatre 2018-19 Review: Dido and Aeneas

Purcell’s Masterpiece is Brought to Vibrant Life

By Jennifer Pyron

Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” has always left room for discussion in regards to musical content and timeline. However, it is with this openness that Juilliard took the opportunity to mold this opera into what was a remarkably intimate production of English Chamber music that told the heartbreaking story of a hell-bent Queen of Carthage. More specifically, Conductor Avi Stein and Director Mary Birnbaum insightfully inserted four additional Purcell arias within the opera that generated an overall well-rounded and emotionally complete musical arrangement that further emphasized intense moments of passion and fierce pride.

Exquisite Intimacy

Audience members were seated in a semi-circle around the intimate stage at Juilliard’s Willson Theater. The period-instrument ensemble Juilliard415, conducted by Stein, consisted of six violinists, a violist, a cellist, two harpsichordists and Theorbo/Guitar player. The intimate setting was perfect because every audience member could experience each facet of the Overture and it was impossible for one to not feel as though they were being transported back to the 17th Century.

Scenic Designer Grace Laubacher and Lighting Designer Anshuman Bhatia created an atmosphere of prestige with a sophisticated modern design that used saturated lighting of pinks, blues, gold, and indigo that showcased an artistically notable stage setting. In the middle of the space was a rectangular polished stone table that had matching stools for guests of the opening dinner party to be seated. And a billboard sized neon “EMPIRE” installation was suspended above the Juilliard415 ensemble.

The costumes were stunning and Costume Designer Oana Botez did not hold back when using her imagination to create special pieces for each singer. Aeneas’ suit was incredibly beautiful with its metallic floral pattern that pieced together perfectly from head to toe. This suit alone was a notably tailored piece of art that was only one look within an array of other elevated designs.

The choreography by Claudia Schreier also shone at different junctures. “Cupid only throws the dart” was an aesthetically pleasing choreographed moment that illuminated a vocally rich cast and sensitive period-ensemble. Everyone did an excellent job expressing the dance-like pulse of Purcell’s music.

“The Triumphing Dance” was also another moment that showcased an impactful cast of singers that could dance as well as sing on a higher level. And maestro Stein also remarked on this effect by saying “in a sense, the chorus carries the show, giving it much of its impact. They can act in many different ways: setting the scene, or as a Greek chorus commenting on what has just happened. In short, the chorus becomes a multidimensional character throughout this opera.”

The Added Arias

The first additional Purcell aria, “If love’s a sweet passion” from “The Fairy Queen” was sung by Shakèd Bar in the role of Dido. Bar sang this while viewing a photo of Aeneas that Belinda held up for her to see. Her voice exhibited a warm and sensual tone and this piece proved to be a solid fit for this private moment between Dido and her thoughts of Aeneas. The chorus also sang in this aria and displayed a sharp routine of choreography to emphasize the court’s sophistication and elegance.

At the end of Act One, the second additional aria “How happy the lover” from “King Arthur” was sung by the chorus, with solo moments including Richard Pittsinger, a duet featuring William Socolof and Joan Hofmeyr, and two trios with Britt Hewitt, Shereen Pimentel, and Carlyle Quinn, among others. While the chorus sang and moved about the stage, Dido and Aeneas imitated a shared moment between two lovers. The overall effect of adding this aria here was potent because the audience was given the chance to fully digest the passionate affair between the two characters.

The third additional Purcell aria “Urge me no more,” Z. 426, was sung by the First Witch, Shereen Pimentel. She showcased her outstanding stamina and poise as both singer and dancer in this aria, especially when she did a triple turn at the edge of the table on stage. Pimentel exemplified a balanced performance throughout as both singer and dancer.

Chance Jonas-O’Toole sang the final additional Purcell aria “See, even Night herself is here,” from “The Fairy Queen.” His voice was transformative in this piece and he masterfully phrased each line so that his emotional connection to every word was his guide. One might say that he had the audience in the palm of his hand during this aria.

Vibrant Vocal Moments

In addition to the memorable new arias, the artists put together some fascinating work in other passages throughout the opera.

Belinda’s opening aria “Shake the cloud from off your brow” was sung by Mer Wohlgemuth which displayed a crisp, clear soprano voice. Wohlgemuth’s diction was impeccable throughout her entire performance. Moreover, it was Bar’s captivating voice while singing “Ah! Belinda, I am prest” that foreshadowed her final aria “When I am laid” as something to be highly anticipated. Wohlgemuth also had an similarly potent interpretation of “Thanks to these lonesome vales;” the phrase “so fair the game, so rich the sport” was tenderly interpreted.

Myka Murphy, as the Sorceress, followed Jonas-O’Toole’s solo with the powerful aria “Wayward sisters you that fright.” Murphy moved about on top of the table and drew all eyes to her sinister and sensual portrayal of character. Her voice was a powerhouse that drove along this aria with an abundant quality of strength.

Aeneas’ aria “Behold upon my bending spear” showcased Dominik Belavy’s Baritone as he sang “a monster’s head stands bleeding, with tushes far exceeding.” Belavy also portrayed strong character as he sang in response to the Spirit he encounters in the woods. “Stay Prince and hear” is an aria featuring The Spirit of the Sorceress in the form of Mercury. Both Belavy and Hewitt sang with conviction. The Spirit also carried with her a case that held a neon yellow banner (similar to the neon “EMPIRE”) that read “HERO.” Hewitt gave Belavy this banner to wear as he took on the weight of Aeneas’ decision to follow the orders of the gods “to gain th’ Hesperian shore and ruined Troy restore.” This was the moment when everything changed for every character and malicious sorcery took hold of the storyline.

Act Three

Act Three brought everything together with fascinating narrative drive.  “Come away, fellow sailors” and “The Sailors’ Dance,” were beautifully choreographed with chorus members wearing iridescent rain coats that were both eye and ear catching as they swished-and-swooshed back and forth, imitating ocean waves in motion. Streamers of similar iridescent style were pulled across the ceiling of the theater that bounced all colors off each other and cleverly captured the full image of the ships and sailors in motion.

After this moment, Dido, Belinda and Aeneas enter and Belinda asks Dido to see Aeneas as truthful when he approaches her to announce his fate. As Belavy neared Bar, he lifted his neon yellow “HERO” banner from his shoulders and laid it down on the table for her to clearly see his reluctance to obey the gods. This was a powerful moment that exposed the torture felt by both Dido and Aeneas as they surrendered to a malicious demise.

Dido sings “Thus on the fatal Banks of Nile, weeps the deceitful crocodile.” In this phrase, Bar vocally blossomed and emulated a guttural weeping that captured her voice in an effective way. One could feel Dido releasing her soul into the hands of her ultimate fate as Bar sang “For ’tis enough, whate’er you now decree, that you had once a thought of leaving me.”

Aeneas also reveals his truest self in this moment, as Belavy sang “No, no, I’ll stay, and Love obey!” with an appropriate self-defeat driven tone that highlighted his ability to express Aeneas’s undeniable weakness at his core. And it is Dido that puts an end to this argument by requesting Aeneas to leave her, signaling Bar as she watched Belavy walk away from both his “HERO” sign and herself while she sang “But Death, alas! I cannot shun; Death must come when he is gone,” – an eery foreshadowing tone that solidified her decision to die.

One of the most beautiful highlights of this performance was when the choir sang “Great minds against themselves conspire.” Members of the chorus encircled Dido and gently ushered her to rest in knowing that they too understood her emotional torment and pain. Each singer’s tenderness was felt and with Dido preparing for her imminent suicide, this moment seemed to stand still in time – a remarkable pause of great artistic display.

Dido’s final aria, “When I am laid” is widely known as the most popular aria in “Dido and Aeneas.” Notably, what sets this aria apart from other famous passages outside of this opera is the access it gives listeners into the heart of a proud queen just before she commits suicide and into the soul of the singer portraying Dido. One could tell from the start of the entire performance that Bar’s voice was perfect for this role, however it was not until this final aria that one might have been aware of Bar’s ability to channel a powerfully effect spirit into the final hours of Dido’s existance. Bar’s voice remained unapologetically honest and true to her own timbre in this aria. Not once did she vocally overreach or characteristically overact. And it was this pure stream of honesty that made this moment so incredibly impactful.

As chorus members sang “With drooping wings Cupids come,” Bar lowered herself into the pyre, and all stood still to “keep watch,” just before the house lights went black and everyone lunged at the opportunity to retrieve her abandoned crown of power.


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