Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by the New Opera at Williamstown and the New York Collective of the Performing Arts in Boston

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Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Dido And Aeneas (1689 or earlier)
Tragic Opera In Three Acts
Libretto by Nahum Tate, after his play Brutus of Alba and Virgil’s Aeneid
The New Opera, May 29, 2009
Chapin Hall, Williams College

Prologue – Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe, Patrick Madden
Dido, Queen of Carthage – Vivien Shotwell
Belinda, her confidante – Erin Casey
Aeneas, a Trojan prince – Woodrow Bynum
Sorceress – Keith Kibler
Spirit, in form of Mercury – Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe
Second Woman – Augusta Caso
Witches – Sabrina Manna, Ann Marie Grathwol
Sailor – Douglas Paisley
Courtiers, Witches, Sailors and Cupids – Ensemble

Aoede Consort
Dan Foster, conductor

Dido and Aeneas
by Henry Purcell
Performed by the New York Collective of the Performing Arts
a fringe concert at the Boston Early Music Festival:
Friday, June 12, 11AM
Old South Church, Gordon Chapel
Starring Nadine Balbeisi, Cory Knight & Christopher Temporelli
Directed by Heidi Grumelot
Choreography by Aidan Oshea
Musical direction by Flying Forms (artistic directors Tami Morse & Marc Levine)

Nadine Balbeisi – Dido, Queen of Carthage
Allison Pohl – Belinda, Lady in waiting
Kala Maxym – Attendant Women
Anne Pennies – Witch 1
Caitlin Burke  – Witch 2
Kala Maxym – Spirit/Dido cover
Cory Knight – Aeneas, Prince of Troy
Alexander Ebin – 1st Sailor/Aeneas cover
Christopher Temporelli – Sorcerer
Evan Seitchik – Ensemble

Although a certain mystery surrounds the origins and dramatic intentions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, it has become the most performed of Purcell’s stage works, not only for the obvious practical reasons (It is short and requires only a small cast, not all of whom have to possess the highest technical skill.), but because of its unique versatility, which is more than a chance artifact of transmission: Dido and Aeneas can be successfully performed with less than a full complement of dancing, stage action, costume, and sets—that is in a concert version or semi-staged, or in an elaborate staging in the taste of Purcell’s own time—or our own, if intelligently and reasonable executed, and short, far short of this year’s Glyndebourne production of The Fairy Queen. The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera production of its model, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (ca. 1682) gives a brilliant idea of what a performance of Dido and Aeneas might have been like in Purcell’s time, with its fluid interchange between the performers and the participating audience, both in song and in dance. Gilbert Blin’s production can serve as an ideal around which many worthy approximations can orbit. The opera’s economy, small cast, and the fact that there is no evidence for a public performance in Purcell’s lifetime favor a more intimate realization as a domestic masque.

It was not, however, as brief as it usually is in modern performances. The 1689 text includes seventeen dances, occasions when the patrons and guests could mingle with the professionals and enter Purcell’s Virgilian world. These participatory interludes would have expanded Tate’s spare libretto considerably.

The two performances discussed here, as different as they are, both reflect some of these factors in their own ways. The New Opera production, although separated from the audience on an apron stage in Williams College’s Chapin Hall, successfully brought together a singers, musicians, and dancers of widely varying levels of experience, re-creating one important aspect of a private performance. Dance and stage action made their appearances mainly in the prologue, but the music remained at the center, reflecting Dido’s uniqueness in Purcell’s oeuvre in being entirely sung. The NYCPA production, on the other hand, using an impressive group of young professionals, was fully staged, with costumes, dances, and elaborate movement (but no sets), both in a plane facing the audience and extending out into the center and right side aisles. Performed in the Gothic Gordon Chapel of Old South Church, it recalled a top-notch student production at Oxford or Cambridge, although its professionalism went beyond that. If Dido marked a coming-of-age for the Williamstown New Opera as their first complete work, it gave this youthful and imaginative New York troupe an opportunity to display their multi-faceted abilities.

The entirely admirable high points of The New Opera production were Artistic Director Keith Kibler’s spectacular performance‚ both dramatically and musically, as the Sorceress. Earlier in the performance I wondered why Mr. Kibler was sitting beside a pile of straw. This was in fact the scraggly hair of a frightful mask, which he donned to enact his part. With extravagant gestures and a rich bass-baritone voice, full of color—many colors, in fact—and menacing nuance, he created a fully realized portrayal of the supernatural figure, whose ingrained resentment brings on Dido’s downfall. As Dido, the New Opera featured the young Canadian-American mezzo-soprano, Vivien Shotwell. A 2003 graduate of Williams College, she studied singing at The Royal Conservatory of The Hague before completing an M.F.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in voice performance at the University of Iowa. She has performed the Dritte Dame in Die Zauberflöte, the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and Public Opinion in Orpheus in the Underworld. This autumn she will join Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Development Program for their 2009-2010 season. While, as an actress, she fell prey to the common contemporary vice of depicting Dido as a stuffy female executive, perhaps mostly a result of a certain timid stiffness, she sang with an extremely attractive and extremely large voice. Vivien Shotwell is indeed a promising singer at the very beginning of her professional career, and I was delighted to hear her, especially her reedy, dark chest tones. Her vocal production, phrasing, and musicianship were impressive throughout, but she rose to a very high level in her final scenes, especially in Dido’s great Lament, which could not have been more moving and musicianly. On the debit side (and I believe Chapin Hall’s grating acoustics are mostly to blame) her voice was of a totally different dimension than those of Erin Casey, who sang Belinda, and the other women, and she often drowned them out. It is possible that she couldn’t hear this entirely on stage. The acoustical devils lurking in the corners of Chapin inflicted an unpleasant harsh and blurring aura on her higher registers, confusing her excellent diction. Since her voice was so much louder, this unfortunate effect was much more pronounced in her case than in the others, although all the higher voices suffered.

Erin Casey acquitted herself admirably as Belinda. Her voice was consistent, well-balanced, and beautiful, and she sang and acted with commitment. Augusta Caso sang a fine Second Woman. Woodrow Bynum was a solid, manly Aeneas Aeneas, at least in voice, since he acted Aeneas’ weaker behavior in his scenes with Dido, most persuasively. Doug Paisley did a seaworthy turn as the Sailor. The principle singers often joined the secondary singer to form a chorus.

Another impressive feature of the production was the excellent work of Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe and Patrick Madden, both students at Mount Greylock High School and pupils of Mr. Kibler’s. To replace Purcell’s lost prologue to the opera, they sang, recited, and danced to Purcell’s arrangement of Dryden’s “Fairest Isle.” Their performance was impressively polished and even elegant. It’s no secret that Williamstown abounds with young talent, and both Tunnicliffe and Madden are exceptional even in that context.

The Aoede Consort under Dan Foster played period strings with energy and enthusiasm, although not always with the cleanest ensemble or intonation. The Chapin acoustics were no help, stirring up the higher notes and harmonics into something of a porridge. A bit of tuning later in the performance brought relief. In spite of this criticisms the instrumentalists and their conductor deserved the enthusiastic applause they received.

Amidst all of the magnificence of the Boston Early Music Festival, the only full Fringe performance I was able to attend was the New York Performing Artist’s Collective’s production of Dido and Aeneas. The talent and professionalism behind this was truly impressive. With a little more time for refinement, it would have been fully worthy of the main festival. Artistic Director and Sorcerer (sic) Christopher Temporelli ( a.k.a. Opera Meraviglia) deserves the highest praise for his leadership of the group, as well as this production. Since NYCPA is indeed a collective initiative, his associates Flying Forms (artistic directors Tami Morse & Marc Levine), director Heidi Grumelot and movement artist/choreographer Aidan O’Shea deserve equal praise. These are all names to watch for over the coming months and in the long term.

The orchestra played period instruments, the singers used vibrato discreetly; they wore ancient costume; dance and movement were modern. Even if no participation by a real or staged audience was woven into the production, there was plenty of interaction within Gordon Chapel, where the performance took place, and even outside its confines, out into Copley Square. As I entered Old South Church a tall, massive, and forbidding usher glared at me, as he wielded his silver-tipped staff. I gave him a respectful berth, as I entered the vestibule. To my right I could see into the nave of the main church, where a coffin lay upon its bier. A funeral was about to take place, and from the earnest engagement of further ushers and their imposing sense of authority, I surmised it was the interment of an important Bostonian. The door I sought was to the left. I saw another usher cast a disapproving glance at it, as I made my way in. It was late. Only a few seats remained. A few more people entered and the house was full. The performance began. A few more disapproving glares came from the vestibule, and eventually the heavy wooden doors to the chapel were shut by official personages who had no idea that we were about to enjoy no ordinary entertainment, but one of the most solemn—the wretched love of Dido for the Trojan wanderer Aeneas and her unhappy demise.

NYCPA take a dark view of the opera. The Sorcerer, Christopher Temporelli, his tall, slim frame covered by a black cloak, lurked about the aisle at the side and made his way to the stage behind the altar rail, where he set the tone for the action to follow. There is no doubt about who holds Dido’s fate in his hands. While Mr. Temporelli acted and moved most effectively, the masculinization of the character undercut the effect of the Restoration convention of assigning witch’s roles to low male voices. I don’t understand NYCPA’s rationale for the change of gender. In any case his acting and his strong, dusky bass-baritone voice made for an exceptional performance.

In fact, vivid acting, skilful movement, and beautiful, solidly trained voices were impressively consistent throughout. Nadine Balbeisi sang an affecting, natural Dido, free from any clichéd stiffness, made all the more attractive by the interesting, almost fruity quality of her voice. Allison Pohl was a sympathetic Belinda, and Cory Knight sang Aeneas with a strong, steady baritone, maintaining a modicum of dignity even in his more caddish moments. Kala Maxym sang two roles: the most prominent of Dido’s attendant women as well as a spirit with a most attractive, well-balanced mezzo-soprano, which was bright as well as rich in color. She also showed a flair for dance and movement, and her intelligent concept of these smaller roles made them especially memorable.

The excellent young players of period strings were supported by and especially virtuosic bassoonist, Rachel Begley. While it seemed a little odd to hear a bassoon without an oboe in this music, her lively playing proved a added pleasure, not least in an interpolated peasant-like dance movement.

The flexible staging brilliantly expanded certain episodes into group scenes. The sailor, usually left to his own devices, here became part of an amusing drunk scene, in which the Trojan sailors drive their Carthaginian girlfriends to disgust. The tragedy ended with Dido’s stately funeral, in which her body was carried down the aisle of the chapel, with mourners bearing her tiara and her sandals—a genuinely moving parallel to the real-life obsequies which were taking place in the main church.

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