Reviewed James Karas
Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has the dubious distinction of being first performed by the girls at a boarding school in Chelsea run by a dancer and choreographer. The date is uncertain and the closest scholars get is to state that it was before December 1689. The opera is frequently described as a masterpiece or the best opera in English which may explain why it was not produced in England for almost 200 years (1704 – 1895). Even then it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that it started being produced regularly.
The opera is an ideal vehicle for Opera Atelier. It has some beautiful music, of course, but it provides plenty of opportunities for the Artists of Atelier Ballet and the Opera Atelier Chorus. Most of the pieces are quite short, perhaps to accommodate the abilities of the young girls who first performed it, and its vocal requirements are below the stratosphere.
Wallis Giunta and Christopher Enns. Photo Bruce Zinger
Bring on Director Marshall Pynkoski, Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Set Designer Gerard Gauci and Costume Designer Michael Legouffe, experts in the production of Baroque opera, and watch the results.
The first thing Pynkoski does is add a prologue that puts the plot of the opera in context. Not all of us remember the story of Dido Queen of Carthage as related by Virgil in The Aeneid. Actor Irene Poole, in a delightful and sprightly performance, brings us up to snuff by reading parts of The Aeneid in the voices of Virgil, Juno, Neptune and Aeolus.
There are a number of dances indicated in the badly preserved score but Zingg adds a few more using Purcell’s music.
Pynkoski and Zingg are thus able to produce an integrated opera-ballet that flows naturally from the plot and the music. The production combines the artifice, gestures and poses of baroque dance and the splendid music and singing of the period. There is great emphasis placed on colour and spectacle but the latter is not exaggerated. We see elegance, beauty and grace.
Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings the role of the unhappy Dido, a widow who has fallen in love with the Trojan Aeneas who will eventually abandon her. We know that because he has to found Rome, you see, and it is a job ordered by the gods. In her first aria “Ah, Belinda” Dido sings of her turmoil expressed in librettist Nahum Tate’s terse couplets. Giunta does superb work in the role especially in the signature aria of the opera, the moving lament “When I am laid in earth.”
Soprano Meghan Lindsay is Dido’s faithful confidante Belinda. Lindsay is a highly accomplished singer of Baroque roles and her supple and velvety voice was on fine display in this opera.
Well-tuned and well-toned tenor Christopher Enns is our hero Aeneas who must love and leave because he is to other business bound. A fine performance by Enns.
Mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, and sopranos Ellen McAteer and Karine White get the fun roles of the Sorceress and the First and Second Witches respectively. They are the baddies who want to destroy Dido but provide good entertainment while at it.
The Toronto Children’s Chorus Choral Scholars harping back to the school girls who sang in the first production of Dido no doubt, joins members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis and they do superior work.
Dido is a relatively short opera and can be performed in less than an hour. With the addition of a Prologue and some dances, it lasts for an hour and a half and I found myself hoping for more. The music, singing and dancing with the colourful sets and costumes create a mesmerizing effect and an enchanting night at the opera.