Because Baroque opera is rarely seen on the stage today, some might be inclined to dismiss Henry Purcell's 17th-century masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas, as a museum piece. If it is, then Houston Grand Opera's new co-production of the work with Opera Atelier is the Mona Lisa.
HGO and Opera Atelier set out to stage Dido in the manner that it would have been performed in the 17th or 18th century. The result is remarkably successful. At the February 2 premiere, you almost got the impression you were watching this opera in the court of Louis XIV.
Anyone who knows the works of Bach or Handel is familiar with the Baroque musical style. But because works from this period are so seldom staged, Baroque operatic style is less well known. Heavy emphasis is placed on the arias, which gives the performers ample opportunity to display their vocal range and versatility. Dance is also almost always an important element, and stylized gesturing is used to convey dramatic effect. The stories, taken from classic mythology, are decidedly secondary to the singing and dancing. In the Baroque era, operas were performed in contemporary dress, even though the stories were drawn from antiquity.
For this production, HGO and Opera Atelier brought in conductor Marc Minkowski and his orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, considered to be among the top interpreters of Baroque opera today. At the premiere, Minkowski and his orchestra sounded every bit as good as they do on their critically acclaimed recordings. They performed the more somber moments of Purcell's score with depth and feeling and its lighter passages with zest and charm. The lute solos were particularly moving, and the use of the tambourine to spice up several of the dance numbers was a welcome addition.
The cast, while not as well known as the orchestra, equaled its performance. Linda Maguire was outstanding as Dido, queen of Carthage. Her first-act rendition of "Ah, Belinda," perhaps the opera's best-known aria, was sung with conviction and emotion. Equally as compelling was her interpretation of Dido's lament at the end of the opera, "When I Am Laid In Earth." As Belinda, the queen's consort, Shari Saunders was impressive, performing the difficult second-act aria, "Haste, Haste to Town," virtually flawlessly.
Aeneas, surprisingly, doesn't have any big arias. But he does have important dramatic recitatives at the end of the second and third acts, which Brett Polegato performed with power and compassion.
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Jacques Francois Loiseleur des Longchamps was cast as the sorceress, a role normally reserved for a female performer, while Laura Pudwell and Meredith Hall portrayed the two witches. Their light-hearted interpretation of the witches' scene at the beginning of the second act was utterly delightful and one of the performance's many highlights. The chorus also offered a fine rendition of the famous echo song at the end of this scene as well as a beautiful interpretation of perhaps the opera's most moving ensemble number, "With Drooping Wings Ye Cupids Come."
The choreography was brilliant, the costumes were sumptuous and the sets, while relatively simple, were effective. Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Singg, co-artistic directors for this production, have studied Baroque opera, dance and drama in depth, and as a result, their vision of Dido and Aeneas has a convincing air of authenticity. The costumes were reminiscent of the ornate garb worn by the characters in a Rubens painting, while the set consisted of a semi-circle of columns with drapery on each side. The fact that the opera is staged in the Wortham Center's smaller Cullen Theater, which is about the same size as court theaters in Baroque palaces in Europe, gives the production an additional feel of veracity.
Dido and Aeneas -- a good introduction to Baroque opera -- received an enthusiastic reception from the crowd at its premiere. One hopes this will encourage HGO to stage more Baroque operas in the future. They would be a welcome addition to the schedule, and highly preferable to staging yet another production of Madame Butterfly or some other over-performed work from the standard repertoire.
Dido and Aeneas plays through February 19 at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-2787.