Opera Review: Purcell’s “Dido” — Re-made for the Lives We are Living Now
By Ralph P Locke
Coming soon to your computer or cellphone: The Boston Camerata launches a bold staged performance of Purcell’s pathbreaking opera, but in a way that keeps its cast and audience safe.
Dido and Aeneas (An Opera for Distanced Lovers) Music by Henry Purcell (1659-95), words by Nahum Tate (1652-1715).
The Boston Camerata. Musical and stage direction Anne Azéma, with media and lighting design by Peter A. Torpey. Tahanee Aluwihare (Dido), Luke Scott (Aeneas), Camila Parias (Belinda), and Jordan Weatherston Pitts (Sorcerer). With a chamber orchestra and singers from Longy School of Music of Bard University and Harvard University Choral Fellows.
Pre-performance talk by musicologist Ellen Harris (Professor Emeritus of Music, MIT), post-performance discussion by Anne Azéma and Peter A. Torpey.
Available for streaming November 14-29: tickets are $35, $50 for a family (or, presumably, a group watching on a single device), $10 for a student. Click here.
One of the many sectors of the American economy that have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the performing arts. Some restaurants have retooled by offering takeout meals. Our local health club moved its exercise classes into an outdoor tent. But music, theater, and dance traditionally require a seated audience in an indoor space with excellent acoustics. Musicians everywhere are accustomed to working in close proximity to one another. And, in opera and musical theater, cast members touch or kiss, and sing energetically into each other’s faces.
The net result is that opera performances, like those of Broadway plays and musicals, ceased last Spring, and they are unlikely to begin again anytime soon. (In late September, the Metropolitan Opera cancelled the rest of its 2020-21 season.)
One renowned early-music group, the Boston Camerata, rather than cancelling, has come up with a characteristically innovative alternative. This much-loved organization, directed from 1969 to 2008 by the lutenist Joel Cohen and since then by the renowned French-born soprano Anne Azéma, had already, in recent decades, expanded from conventional concerts to staged and costumed events based on a plot or theme. In recent years the Camerata has toured with their own version of the medieval Play of Daniel, and they were preparing to do the same with The Night’s Tale: A Tournament of Love, inspired by the tournaments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (For a sense of the group’s wide range of repertory, including such things as Shaker hymns, see their extensive online discography.)
Anne Azéma and the Camerata’s staff and board were already planning a new production of Purcell’s only true opera, Dido and Aeneas (composed ca. 1688 or earlier) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the Camerata’s most high-profile accomplishments: its 1979 recording of that epoch-making work.
As Azéma explained to me recently in an email-interview:
We had planned our 2020-2021 season in January 2019 already, and I knew that I wanted [the Camerata] to return to Dido, for several reasons: a big in-house anniversary for this piece, and a Boston season under the #SheToo header. Also, we had the right cast for this production[, including Tahanee Aluwihare as Dido]. And staged productions are becoming more and more attractive to us and an active part of how we honor our mission.
The Camerata’s 1979 recording (led by Cohen, and featuring D’Anna Fortunato as Queen Dido) was a historic achievement: the first one ever to have been shaped, comprehensively, by the principles of what was then coming to be known as Historically Informed Performance. Numerous fine and diverse HIP recordings have followed, such as Nicholas McGegan’s, with mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. But the Camerata recording remains available, and fascinating, on streaming services such as Spotify; as a special order CD from the Camerata’s site; and, for free, as four separate “tracks” on YouTube. Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen recently reminisced about making that 1979 recording (which was released in 1980):
The pandemic could have put a halt to the Camerata’s plans for this 40th-anniversary stage production. But, as operas go, Purcell’s Dido happens to be well suited for the Age of Covid. It is short (normally fitting onto a single CD), and its cast and orchestra are small, especially when one follows HIP guidelines, such as having only a single player for each distinct instrumental part (say, cello) instead of six or more, as often in a symphony or opera orchestra.
Still, Azéma and the Camerata quickly realized that a fresh production of Dido and Aeneas in the midst of a viral pandemic would need special treatment, in order to protect the health of all the performers—and of the audience.
Their solution: videorecord a mostly live performance of the work on stage at the Longy School of Music (in Cambridge), using all appropriate health-safety precautions, such as having the singers masked when not singing, and singing at a distance from each other, and keeping the instrumentalists masked at all times.
The choral singers will prerecord their individual parts, each doing her or his part in front of a camera, presumably at home or some otherwise empty studio. The separate choral tracks will be “mixed” together in advance, much as has been done in recent months by numerous choral groups and symphony orchestras for streamed performances. (Here’s the Ottawa Bach Choir, doing the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s B-Minor Mass, under Lisette Canton, with each player in a separate rectangle.)
The completed videorecording, combining the live stage performance and the mixed-in chorus, with various imaginative visual elements laid on top, behind, and so on, will be available for streaming on November 14-29. (See the trailer below, which incorporates excerpts from the famous 1979 recording.)
That’s not all. As Anne Azéma explained to me, distancing the singers from each other will make vivid to the viewer the problematic relationship between the two title characters, who, as fans of Baroque opera know well, never sing a love duet:
My perception is that Dido and Aeneas are distant [from each other]. Unlike with Virgil, Purcell does not let us see a couple, together, happy. There are no love duets, as [musicologist] Ellen Harris reminds us [in her acclaimed book on the opera: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, 2nd edn., paperback]. We only have one fuller conversation at the end between the lovers, a violent[ly emotional] rejection, which ends tragically with her death [by suicide].
Azéma ended the interview by stressing that the freely updated and reimagined staging is consistent with the history of how the work was reimagined in the century or more after its first performances. And one can sense, in her final words, the determination of the Boston Camerata to continue to make art matter, even, or especially, in the stressful time that we are all living through:
The manuscript and ( implicitly) the performance history—including variant readings, different incarnations of the sorcerer (man or woman?), evidence that “Dido” was performed and reperformed into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—all these things suggest to us that variation/reinterpretation are part of the lived history of this masterpiece. And, in keeping with our forebears, we are contributing to this long tradition of admirative remaking.
Certain aspects of our production — the instruments and their style of playing, the use of period English pronunciation — adhere to our reading of the seventeenth century “norm,” and to our love for that manner of being. Other aspects of the staging and filmography, including our casting of artists and staging, costumes, will be innovative with regards to the past.
Given the times, we all need to rethink our ways of fulfilling our mission as artists, individually and collectively. Dido, this uniquely resonant and evocative work, gives us a great opportunity to advance in that task. And, even, to advance joyfully!
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Wexford (Ireland), Bilbao (Spain), and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).