Jon Ciliberto | 7 FEB 2024
Described by the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra as their “most ambitious project to date,” their presentation of English composer Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas brings in soloists Hannah De Priest, Brian Giebler, Andréa Walker, and Michael Galvin in the opera’s principal roles, the Georgia State University Chamber Singers, as well dance and choreography by staibdance and ImmerseATL. ABO artistic director Julie Andrijeski summarized the extensive array of talent brought to bear: “Thirty-eight performers, four directors, four production managers, two costume designers, and a lighting designer have all collaborated to bring this opera to fruition.”
I attended the middle performance of three. The first two were at Emory’s Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on Friday and Saturday. A final performance took place Tuesday evening at Spivey Hall.
Dido’s story is not a happy one. Even when under the spell of love in Purcell’s opera, Dido is never happy. Some of this derives directly from the source material — Virgil’s Aeneid (as adapted by the librettist, Nahum Tate). Virgil was an earnest writer, inclined to a hard morality. “Aeneas too has a great deal less fun than Homeric heroes; Dido is scarcely ‘fun’.” [A Companion to the Study of Virgil, Nicholas Horsfal | Brill, 2000]
The tension between the tormented Dido and her manipulating friends (and witches) is the opera’s main dynamic, and the ABO’s production presented each of these three “voices” with a clear, distinct personality, setting excellent contrasts. Hannah De Priest conveyed Dido’s impossible position, pulled apart by supernatural forces and human desire, in powerful and intimate singing. As the Sorceress, Michael Galvin projected the absolute control of the true mover of the plot beyond the power or grasp of any of the other players. He owned the stage with vocal delivery and grandiloquent imperiousness (towering spike-heeled boots helped, too).
The blithe smarminess of Belinda was delivered through vocal performance, as well as oversized expressions and gestures, by Andréa Walker. Belinda, a busybody, is utterly unaware of the danger of her game. Dido and Belinda are a contrast between existential grief and high school camp, between indecision and political calculus (Belinda, trying to convince Dido to court Aeneas, sings, “The greatest blessing Fate can give, Our Carthage to secure and Troy revived.”). Belinda is a constant source of distraction (“Fear no danger”), undercutting Dido’s attempts to preserve herself. Walker delivered the hard crystalline oblivion of Belinda wonderfully, setting off De Priest’s anguish.
Although a relatively brief work, often clocking in at under 50 minutes, its structure and (in places) ambiguity offer significant opportunities for expansion and interpretation. The ABO took the opportunity of staging the opera more dramatically than one typically sees, with full choreography interweaving seamlessly with the opera as written. The choreography offered both a clear reflection of the narrative — variations on courtly dance, for instance, as Aeneas and Dido meet — as well as more symbolic forms. The hints of barbarism in movement at this point signal the end to which Dido is driven by Aeneas and his crew’s arrival, with the dance conveying degrees of the torment encased in formality, warped by necromantic forces, that Dido undergoes. In Act II, the jerky physicality of the dancers, with arms twisted around their backs, portrayed Dido as almost possessed and driven to her end.
The Chamber Singers, too, were involved in the action, entering as drunken partygoers, goblets a’clink. Their integration with the ABO in the opera’s recitatives was wonderfully balanced.
Performers through the centuries have added additional music to fill out the score. When the printed libretto (although not later ones) indicates “Dance GITTARS CHACONY,” performers have often inserted the Chaconne for guitar by Francesco Corbetta (1615-1681). He worked for Charles II while the latter was in exile in the 1670s and then returned with him to the English court. Not only is this a reasonable insertion in terms of the composer’s possible influence on Purcell, but also well-suited to the action of the opera at this point, with Daniel Swenberg performing on baroque guitar and acting as the strolling musician as Dido and Aeneas woo: a perfect moment of courtly fare.
The ABO also inserted three independent works by Purcell between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act II, including the wonderful “Music for a While” — its repeating ground bass pattern foreshadowing the passacaglia of “When I am Laid in Earth” (Dido’s Lament).
Glenn Memorial presents some limitations. A church as well as an auditorium, the largish pulpit on left and the lectern on the right limited views, but otherwise the production utilized the space’s entrance and exit possibilities well. The stage/dais is fronted by long altar rails and ramps, dancers and singers moved easily through the entire space to the audience itself, often tramping off stage via these visible routes. To me, this treatment was well-designed to match the action itself, as the crowd of court moved from one scene to the next. The light gaiety of these travels often communicated the ambiguity in Dido’s story: parties go on, but destiny (or witchcraft) grinds over individual happiness.
The production’s costume design elected not to pursue a strictly thematic approach. Dido’s golden cuirass indicates her ancient royalty, while Belinda and the Second Woman’s costumes evoke the English 17th-century schoolgirl setting of the opera’s (probable) first performance. The Sorceress, meanwhile, leaned toward goth-rock, with a nod to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Aeneas appeared somewhat post-apocalyptic.
With only two designated male roles, the opera is largely a woman’s story. Scholarship on Dido and Aeneas is complicated (Ellen T. Harris’ revised second edition on the work is a good place to start), and recent inquiry has included attention to its gender issues. It is perhaps needless to say that Dido’s story presents ripe interpretational opportunities. “[T]he underlying sense of the opera as the portrayal of a woman defeated by a misogynistic world is strengthened,” for instance, when a male plays the role of Sorceress. Scores throughout the years show the role as being for bass (probably Purcell’s intent), bass-baritone, baritone, and mezzo-soprano.
While Aeneas has fewer opportunities to shine, the ambiguity of his character — something brought out by Virgil scholars from the middle 1950s — was perfectly transmitted to me through Brian Giebler’s measured singing, “If not for mine, for Empire’s sake, some pity on your lover take.”
“Dido’s Lament,” a sorrowful conclusion to her sad story, was framed in a simple and effective manner and sung decisively by Ms. De Priest. The audience gave enthusiastic and lengthy applause to all the performers. ■
- Atlanta Baroque Orchestra: atlantabaroque.org