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 two great operas of the 17th century are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. After the fundamental innovations Monteverdi formulated, opera was born as a heightened expression of the text. In a way the technique was like digital technology, a relatively small number of compositional units combined with great dexterity to express the gamut of human emotion. Voices and a small number of instruments, the continuo group, formed together a single speech. Even decades after Monteverdi, Purcell gives us a music which comes directly off the words. It heightens speech.
How fortunate for us again to have Jonathan Miller serve up one of the staples of the repertoire: Verdi’s La Traviata, based on La Dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexander Dumas, fils, published in 1848. The tragedy of a Parisian courtesan is replete with nineteenth-century plot equipage: romance, familial sacrifice, social stigma, abandonment, tuberculosis, and, of course, untimely death. Verdi wasted almost no time in having Francesco Piave adapt a libretto, renaming the heroine, Marguerite Gautier, Violetta Valéry. While Mr Miller passed this time on transposing time and space, keeping this work firmly footed in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, he has shorn away from this sometimes precious tale of love and death much of the affectation, gesture, and dramatic paraphernalia that can seem bathetic to modern sensibility.