Fuse Concert Review: An Opera Lost in Space

Handel and Haydn Society’s irreverent take on “Dido and Aeneas” is another example of an operatic trend in which production values push musical values to the sidelines.

“Dido and Aeneas,” presented by the Handel and Haydn Society at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston, MA.

By Mark Kroll

Dido’s “Lament” from Henry Purcell’s masterpiece “Dido and Aeneas” might very well be the most famous Baroque opera aria in the world. Anyone who ever took a music class in college would think so, since the “Lament” is included in almost every anthology of required pieces to study, but the popularity of the aria and the entire opera is universal. That is why there was a full house for the Handel and Haydn Society’s production of Purcell’s tragic tale of love, betrayal, ambition and suicide. Expectations were high. The music is drop-dead gorgeous, and the aria that Dido sings before she kills herself (“Remember me, but ah forget my fate”) should never fail to break your heart. So why wasn’t there a wet eye in the house?

One reason was the uninspired conducting of Grant Llewellyn. His tempos seemed to go from slow to slower to slowest, and the dynamics were equally unexciting. More importantly, neither conductor nor singers seemed to be paying enough attention to what these characters were actually saying and doing on stage — or feeling. This is a fatal flaw in the performance of Baroque operas, in which the union of words and music is paramount in expressing heartfelt emotions. It is the reason, after all, why Italians called operas “dramme per musica” when they invented the genre, just a few decades before Purcell composed his immortal masterpiece. Moreover, to fully realize the full expressive potential of these early operas, today’s performers must have a thorough command of 17 th century performance practices, and know when and where to apply them. This was not evident from what one heard at these H&H performances, despite the presence of a period-instrument orchestra.

Chen Shi-Zheng‘s production didn’t help matters. Granted, the staging, lighting, set design, and costumes were impressive and innovative. Yes, there was indeed an island surrounded by real water on stage, and the effect of the burning funeral pyre was visually spectacular (despite the fact that Nahum Tate’s libretto never actually specifies the manner of Dido’s death). Lost in all this spectacle, however, was the opera itself, and the questions it asks about the human condition. Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and the “Lament” are part of a long operatic tradition in which the climax is reached not when the fat lady sings, but when she kills herself (think Lucrezia, Tosca or Madame Butterfly, to name just a few other examples). Some cynics have claimed that this was the only way the composer could keep these women quiet. But there are far deeper layers of meaning here.
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Wendy Heller, one of the world’s leading scholars on this subject, tells us that “among the literally hundreds of vengeful, erotic, lamenting Baroque opera heroines, it is the repentant Dido [who] canonized female self-sacrifice… [she] is a woman who admits her wrongs, who asks not for sorrow or sympathy, but … understanding; by her confession of sin and desire of virtue…Purcell’s Dido has been redeemed.” Strength and weakness, self-indulgence and self-sacrifice, sin and redemption — these are serious issues, but Chen had a tendency, unintentional I hope, to trivialize them. How else can you explain Aeneas sailing off to found Rome on a surfboard, sailors fishing or playing with beach balls, the evil witches (who came across as campy rather than corrupt) carrying sand buckets, and the entire cast sloshing around in ankle-deep water?

Chen’s “Dido” is unfortunately another example of an operatic trend in which production values push musical values to the sidelines. In the 1970’s Franco Zefferelli’s sometimes self-indulgent, Las Vegas-style productions for the Metropolitan Opera so threatened to obscure the essential meaning of the operas, not to mention their words and music, that one outraged critic compared his approach to “mental pygmies spraying graffiti on great works of art.” Many people feel the same way about Peter Sellars’ versions of Handel and Mozart operas. For example, after Sellars’ sophomoric production of Handel’s “Orlando” in Boston during the 1980s (in which a paper model of the Apollo spacecraft descended as the words “the eagle has landed” were sung), one Handel expert cuttingly observed that “this is a Handel opera for people who hate Handel operas.”

Is Chen Shi-Zheng’s “Dido and Aeneas” a production for people who really don’t like “Dido and Aeneas?” Not entirely. Chen is a gifted director; he feels strongly about the operas he produces, and his blend of Western and Asian art forms is very effective, on the surface. But Chen must be careful not to spray too much on these great masterpieces, because he just might cover up what lies beneath. In a recent interview, the director is quoted as saying that “perhaps this piece can have far more power than if you force people to accept one flat cardboard view.” Chen, however, with his emphasis on the visual, has done exactly that. He has taken Purcell’s “Dido,” a complex and conflicted character, an emblem of purity and self-sacrifice, and turned her and Purcell’s glorious music into a flat piece of beautiful cardboard.

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