Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass, a Theatrical View

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Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass, directed by Jonathan Miller
Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass, directed by Jonathan Miller

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Music: Henry Purcell
Libretto: Nahum Tate
Director: Jonathan Miller
Conductor: Michael Beattie

Dido – Tamara Mumford
Aeneas – David Adam Moore
Belinda – Joélle Harvey

Glimmerglass Opera, 
Cooperstown, NY
August 9th 2009

Purcell’s perennial favorite Dido and Aeneas often receives stately, if not opulent productions, emphasizing the work’s elevated and tragic elements. Jonathan Miller takes a very different tack in this concert staging for Glimmerglass Opera’s 35th season. Severe gray walls suggest an almost institutional setting, and the youthful cast (even the principals are on the young side), casually dressed, look like something out of a Gap commercial. Color is used sparingly.  This counterintuitive approach highlights the opera’s intense, hurtling emotions. The Queen Dido (silken-voiced mezzo Tamara Mumford), suffering unspoken love, is watched carefully by her courtiers, led by the lady-in-waiting Belinda (Joélle Harvey). Her secret revealed, they promptly egg her on to pursue the hero Aeneas. Cupid, they assure her, is “ever gentle, ever smiling.” What could go wrong?

The opening scene establishes an insinuating adolescent vibe.  Here is the popular girl, watched by the crowd and nudged by her best friend into a love pursuit. The chorus, an impressive group of singers from Glimmerglass’ distinguished Young American Artists program, slouch, peer, gossip, and chat on cell phones. The picture of high school anomie is complete with the arrival of the witches, led by the Sorceress (counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), who are performed as cockney-spitting outcasts in hoodies.  Glowering at everyone, even her minions, this Sorceress makes for a convincing embodiment of resentment and malice (the accents suggest an element of clique and class hostility).  Costanzo, one of the featured Young American Artists, is a marvel here, playing harsh and hateful with an amazingly supple voice; there’s a terrible loveliness to his crowing over the end of love: “from the ruin of others our pleasures we borrow.” (Note: Costanzo will return to Glimmerglass next summer as the lead in Handel’s Tolomeo).  The leads, somewhat older and more dignified than the trouble-making chorus, convey their hesitation before being overcome by the power of Cupid (“pursue thy conquest, Love”). Baritone David Adam Moore manages to sound heroic even in this most unheroic of stagings.

The speed of events in this opera does lend itself to such a youthful interpretation: we witness the arc of passionate attachment, from hookup to breakup to suicide, in about an hour. And the humorous side of this kind of emotional frenzy—rarely emphasized in production—is embraced here. Dido’s fury and Aeneas’ confusion in Act III–the back and forth, tit-for-tat of “Away, away!” “No, no, I’ll stay”—encourage us to see these characters as a bit ludicrous and self-important, if very human. Moore’s Aeneas even appeals haplessly to the audience when Dido, in her rage, won’t let him get a word in.

Of course, we then move on to one of the highlights of the opera, Dido’s death lament, “When I am laid in earth.” It is here that the conception, perhaps, breaks down. Miller’s staging, delightful though it may be, provides little weight or dignity for the lovers. Mumford’s final aria is chilling, and suddenly, at the very last moment, we are brought up short by its real emotional depth. Perhaps Miller means for us to be taken unawares—the ending is more jarring than usual.
Glimmerglass’ small auditorium is perfect for this piece. Michael Beattie is both conductor and performer (on the harpsichord) for this production, and handles his dual task with real elegance.

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