OPERA NEWS - Dido and Aeneas
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In Review > North America

Dido and Aeneas

Opera Saratoga

OPERA SARATOGA PARTNERED WITH the National Museum of Dance for its first-ever site-specific production, Dido and Aeneas. A long, narrow stage was built in the vernal courtyard behind the elegant building, its partially timbering somewhat suggesting pre-Georgian England. July 12 proved a beautiful night for sitting outside for Purcell’s lovely work. With a fresh-voiced chorus and the known quality of Jennifer Johnson Cano’s attractive mezzo, the audience reaped built-in rewards. This Dido offered some enjoyment, and was a worthwhile if only partially successful attempt, from which lessons can be learned about acoustical sound design and visual focus that will be useful in further outdoor performances. With Nicole Paiement’s fine instrumentalists (including Christopher Cano, the mezzo’s husband, deftly handling continuo) seated behind the audience and channeled though several little speakers, the music’s impact was variable: better than one might have expected, given the odd spacing. More problematic were the foursquare tempi set by Paiement, a well-regarded conductor with impressive credentials. 

As often when one artist (here Karole Armitage, ostensibly a fine choice) directs and choreographs, the choreography garnered more attention. Armitage’s very skillful dancing quintet often literally took center stage, while major dramatic points like the initial entrances of Aeneas and the Sorceress got marginalized. Incredibly, both Dido’s arias got relegated to under a tree way stage right, far from most of the spectators. Armitage also had Johnson Cano kneel during both pieces, as if to further obscure the queen’s centrality to the work. Initially, despite her vocal excellence, the mezzo—an experienced recitalist—seemed curiously disconnected to Dido’s words. Purcell’s miraculous text settings, such as the usually failsafe “Peace and I are strangers grown,” went for little. As night fell, the mezzo began inhabiting her text more fully, and the sheer clarity of her handsome tone stirred more emotional response.

The other cast members came from the Young Artist Program. Christine Suits looked and sounded glamorous as Belinda, with distinctly promising shine and color in her instrument; oddly, she sometimes pronounced words as if not a native speaker, rolling “r”s and distorting vowels. Couldn’t Armitage and Paiement hear this? Brian Mextorf looked good if way too young as a boy-toyish Aeneas; the character is meant to be the father of a teenage son and a warrior of decades’ service. But the part’s tricky tessitura just didn’t suit his baritone, which emerged dry and shouty. Kate Farrar, interestingly styled by Peter Speliopoulos as kind of a Morticia Addams double of Dido, made a satisfyingly dark-toned, incisive Sorceress. The others all performed capably enough; standouts included Keely Futterer (First Witch) a high-quality lyric soprano of admirable accuracy and keen verbal nuance, and Bryan Pollock, a clear-toned, steady countertenor Spirit. Laurie Rogers’ fine chorus—clothed to evoke Sondheim’s Forum and too often engaged in distracting unison sleeve gestures—took vigorous part, sounding best when distributed around the playing area, not lined up behind the principals. One exception was Armitage’s Birnam Wood-style take on “Thanks to these lovesome vales,” in which Paiement’s glacial tempo nearly derailed choral ensemble. Her best instrumental work came in “Come away, fellow sailors” and the subsequent dance: utterly delightful and rhythmically on point. As in The Long Walk, Jeff Bruckerhoff’s lighting proved consistently effective. —David Shengold 

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