When Dido, the Queen protagonist in Henry Purcell’s baroque opera sings her final aria “When I am laid in Earth,” not only do we hear some of the most beautiful music that was ever composed, Purcell also invites us on a journey of deep introspection, forcing us come to terms with the frailty of human existence.
But in recent performances of this baroque masterpiece, Dido’s echoing wishes of remembrance reached even newer depths: not least because the performances literally took place inside the chill-inducing Catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The space, which consists of a long, semi-circular brimstone tunnel that is tucked under a hillside within the cemetery, is certainly not a conventional setting for an opera, but to their credit, tenor-turned-director Alek Shrader and producer Andrew Ousley (Death of Classical) made the most of the catacomb’s eerie ambiance and remarkable acoustics.
Their success was in large part due to the craftiness of their approach, which combined elegant choreography (created and performed by Liana Kleinman) with an arresting array of costumes and beautiful lighting (by Tláloc López-Watermann), all of which delivered the dramatic flair and poignancy one would expect in a full-blown theatrical performance. It also helped that they assembled a pretty stellar cast of singing-actors, who skillfully scaled back their movements to coalesce with the tight confines of the catacombs. Musically, the performance lacked a bit of rhythmic propulsion and variation, particularly during the choral pieces, but was cohesive and satisfying overall.
The production, though straightforward and minimalistic, was dramatically effective in its use of a few basic elements to illustrate the story: a small stage set up near the rear of the tunnel showcased a single brown chair, symbolizing the Carthaginian court of Act one; an elaborate flower arch and black ball masks denoted the bustling grove in Act two, and soft, incandescent candlelight emphasized the mournful ambiance of Act three.
At the Center Of It All
At the center of it all was Dido herself, wearing an elegant blood-red dress that perfectly embodied the character’s nobility, as well as the aching pulse of Purcell’s melodies. As the stately Carthaginian Queen, Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack had all the opulence and ease one could wish for in this role. Not only was she physically captivating, the role’s tessitura also seemed to fit her like a glove, as she poured out an endless array of rich, even sound. Moreover, her transitions between spoken and sung text were so seamless, it was easy to forget that she was even singing at all, which, notably, is no small feat.
This iteration of Purcell’s opera also featured a few spoken lines in between the arias and choruses, which Shrader incorporated from Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, “Dido, Queen of Carthage.” In attempting to give a more contemporary spin on the heroine’s fate, Shrader also restored the character of Iarbas, the Berber King who is betrothed to Dido, which, in true operatic fashion, completes the love triangle. Since Iarbas is in love with Dido, her rejection of him in favor of the Trojan Prince Aeneas, performed brilliantly by Barihunk Paul La Rosa, therefore adds complexity to the story.
Later on, Dido ultimately rejects Aeneas as well, after he thinks of leaving her. Heartbroken, she banishes him, and sings the famous lament, “When I am laid in Earth” before resolutely declaring that “death must come [to her] when he is gone.” In this production, her motivation to end her life is not, says Shrader, an act of weakness, shame or resignation, but rather an act of defiance, resolve and honor.
Some Questions & Strong Answers
Although Mack’s portrayal certainly fit the description of a fiery and defiant queen, certain aspects of Shrader’s vision didn’t quite pan out: Paul Green Dennis seemed miscast in the role of Iarbas, his soulful and resonant bass-baritone wasted by labored attempts at reciting lines in a style he didn’t fully grasp. What’s more, the love-story between Iarbas and Dido’s sister, Anna, a minor plot-point which Shrader also adapted from Marlowe’s play, was so hastily introduced it ultimately seemed disposable. But these were minor flaws in what was otherwise an excellent performance, with each of the other supporting roles exceptionally well-cast and well-sung.
As mentioned, Paul La Rosa is an ideal Aeneas, possessing a virile tenor voice that was perfectly complemented by his suave demeanor and imposing physique. Molly Quinn’s light, crystalline soprano was ideal for the role of Belinda, Dido’s charming handmaid; the statuesque Mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi was an appropriately menacing Sorceress; Alyssa Martin and Erin Moll were vocally well-matched and gave delightfully wicked performances as the two witches. Marc Molomot led the sailors’ song with aplomb, and last but not least, Brooke Larimer was a charismatic Second Woman, here renamed Anna, Dido’s sister. Singing with passion while sprawled on the floor in a backwards position, a la Netrebko, she certainly made the most of her short scenes.
At the rear of the stage, Music Director Elliot Figg led a fine ensemble of five string players while on harpsichord. The maestro chose a more languid tempo for most of the piece, which emphasized the sensuality in Purcell’s harmonies. While this approach tended to make the choruses a bit too turgid, it allowed the singers to shape their phrases elegantly, and it underscored the more profound philosophical themes of death, agency and defiance this production asks us to explore. Moreover, the acoustical effect created by the vocal ensembles, which were impeccably well-balanced, was musically stunning.
This production of “Dido & Aeneas” was also notable in that it launched the second season of The Angel’s Share, a series of opera and chamber music concerts produced by Andrew Ousley, publicist and founder of Unison Media and Death of Classical. These types of intimate performances are not only musically and dramatically engaging, but as Ousley points out, they seem to be carving out a new and ultimately different experience around classical music.
Given the alluring potential these concerts have in terms of appealing to both opera connoisseurs and people who would otherwise never attend an opera, they are worth seeking out, not least because they may just end up sparing this art form from having to sing it’s own lugubrious final lament in the not-too distant future.