Teatro La Fenice 2020 Review: Dido & Aeneas
Giuseppina Bridelli Stars in Giovanni Di Cicco’s Masterful ProductionBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Crosera)
As the final bars of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” played to a close, the chorus moved from the floor of the theater to surround the body of Dido, who lies dead on a raised platform, having slit her own throat. Just behind her a dancer, dressed in a wedding dress contorted and distorted herself into positions of pain and discomfort, in a projection of the mental state which led to her suicide.
It was a poignant ending to a production that successfully navigated both the failings of Nathan Tate’s libretto and the restrictions imposed to combat the virus.
There is no doubting the quality of Purcell’s music, but he is working with a second rate text. Without prior knowledge of the story, the audience would wonder exactly what is happening: the crucial event which leads to Dido’s taking of her own life, Dido and Aeneas’ night of passion, is completely bypassed, while Dido’s initial hesitancy is not explained. And why does the sorceress hate the loving couple so much?
There is a lot the audience needs to know before it sits down to enjoy the opera. Moreover, with the exception of Dido, the characters are not fleshed out at all, and the character of Aeneas comes across as weak and dithering, and this is the man who will lead his people to establish the city of Rome!
Purcell’s music compensates, and when added to the numerous dance interludes, the frequent choral scenes and the possibility of fabulous stage effects the opera can be transformed into a powerful work. It has strong forward momentum, with dramatic scenes, such as the meeting of the witches, the hunt, the sailors’ shanty, and, of course, Dido’s death. In the hands of a competent director it can add up to a brief, but enjoyable and worthwhile piece of theatre.
And this was most definitely the case.
A Master At Work
La Fenice’s production was unable to fully exploit the possibilities contained within the work owing to the COVID restrictions. Social distancing had to be maintained, even by the actors, meaning physical contact was not permitted; certainly, a passionate embrace between Dido and Aeneas would have been out of the question. A crowded stage was also an impossibility so that the chorus had to be relegated to a position in front of the orchestra in the stalls, singing their part as if in an oratorio, dressed formally with no acting. Dance scenes also needed to be devised to conform to the rules.
The director, Giovanni Di Cicco, was also given a further obstacle: he was given no opportunity to design the performance space. For the past few weeks, since the theatre’s reopening, following lockdown, La Fenice has staged its concerts, recitals, and operas with a fixed set, specifically the wooden skeleton of the ship’s hull, which frames the stage, the rear of which is used to seat part of the audience, while the actual performance is acted out on the front of the stage, with a ramp which leads into stalls from which all the seats have been removed, to accommodate the chorus and orchestra.
Di Cicco, however, was more than able to overcome all the obstacles, using movement and the visual impact of the cast’s positioning to accentuate the relationship between the central characters of Dido, Aeneas, and to a lesser extent the Sorceress, in which the minor characters were clearly shown in their supporting roles. It was a heavily stylized presentation, one based on classical simplicity and symmetry.
The costumes designed by Carlos Tieppo were inspired from antiquity, but without being blandly derivative. Colored mainly in pastoral shades of blue they managed to capture the epoch. Aeneas, the outsider, on the other hand, was given a completely different attire, which deliberately jarred with the harmony of the other characters. Often the raised platform was used as a point of symmetry, with an equal number of dancers and minor characters positioned either side in similar positions, with the main character standing alone.
Di Cicco’s background in dance also served him well, enabling him to create engaging dance scenes which not only possessed energy and a style commensurate with the overall values of the production, but did so in a way that gave greater substance to the narrative, and compensated for the lack of an active chorus. Each dance scene had its own particular form, and the dancers were clothed accordingly. They used props, such as ropes for the dance on board the ship, or the antlers of a stag for the hunt scene, and it was all done without physical contact.
The emergence of the chorus at the end to surround Dido’s dead body was a clever move: the cupids might not have arrived as in the libretto, but the chorus’ presence was enough to elevate the sadness and poignancy of the scene.
The role of Dido was played by mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli, who has a particularly interesting and engaging voice, possessing a bright sheen with a firm dark undertone, which gives her singing character and depth. She added to that by dipping into her richly colored vocal pallet to produce an expressive and clearly defined reading.
Bridelli sang with confidence throughout, imbuing her singing with emotional depth, which culminated in Dido’s famous lament, “When I am laid in earth,” in which the dark tones of her voice, her subtle decorations and the heavy emotion with which she clothed the words were spellbinding.
The tenor Antonio Poli portrayed Aeneas as written, as a treacherous, weak-willed lover, too easily manipulated by the spirits and lacking moral fortitude. Nevertheless, he essayed the role well, in which the attractive timbre of the voice, his good English articulation, and ability to shift the weight of the voice securely stood him in good stead.
The recitative passage, “Jove’s commands shall be obey’d,” in which he gave voice to his disappointment at having to leave Dido, and for which he obviously blamed the gods, gave Poli his best opportunity to display his talent. In what was a strong rendition, full of deep expressivity, he carefully molded his phrasing to capture Aeneas’ emotional state.
In Act three, Aeneas plucks up the courage to inform Dido of his decision to leave. In heartfelt exchanges Bridelli and Poli created a powerfully wrought scene in which Poli captured Aeneas’ shallow character as he pleads his case, but then quickly capitulates, forcefully repeating the line “I’ll stay!” Although delivered firmly, securely, and with purpose, Dido’s dismissal only confirmed his weakness. Bridelli’s portrayal was finely developed, her voice a mixture of bitterness and grief, her vocal lines replete with well-placed inflections and strong coloring.
Soprano Michela Antenucci, who recently made a strong impression as Tullia in La Fenice’s production of “Ottone in Villa,” was cast as Dido’s confidante Belinda, and once again caught the eye. She possesses an attractive, flexible voice which she employed intelligently to develop the character. Her air, “Thanks to these lonesome vales” was given a confident rendition, which drew attention to her alluring vocal timbre and subtle phrasing. Moreover, her acting is finely crafted.
The Sorceress was given a strong presentation by contralto Valeria Giradello, whose physical demeanor and confident projection produced a convincing representation. Although having no airs to sing, her delivery of recitatives commanded attention with her neatly crafted lines, dark vocal coloring, subtle embellishments, including small coloraturas and well-placed accents.
The two witches were played by Lara Lagni and Chiara Brunello. Their voices complimented each other nicely, with Lagni’s bright, even-toned soprano highlighted by the contrast with Brunello’s dark-toned contralto, a contrast reflected in their characters; Lagni cool and reserved, Brunello animated and more emotional.
Soprano Martina Licari essayed The Second Woman, who produces a supportive counterweight to Belinda. She sang elegantly throughout. Her air, “Oft she visits this loved mountain,” displayed her pleasing timbre and ability to decorate the vocal line.
The Spirit sent by the Sorceress to dupe the gullible Aeneas was played by tenor Matteo Roma. He sang clearly with an authoritative air as becoming a messenger of the gods. Roma was also was parted as the Sailor.
Although Individual choral units are not extensive in their design, the chorus does have a significant role in the musical and dramatic structure of the work in supporting the singers through added verses/lines, interjections, and fleshing out the narrative, and is thus active throughout the performance. The Coro del Teatro La Fenice under the management of Claudio Marino Moretti was in excellent form. It was sensitive to the work’s dramatic subtleties, clear, with presentable English, and modulated dynamics securely, moving from full-blooded passages in which they attacked the line, filling the theatre with their voices, to gentle passages sung with an elegant pianissimo.
The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under maestro Tito Ceccherini produced a sensitive interpretation, which captured the work’s elegant and delicate scoring. The pleasing balance between the orchestra and the singers was scrupulously maintained.
Overall, this was a successful production, both musically and dramatically in what was far from propitious circumstances.