“Dido and Aeneas” Stuns in Rancho Santa Fe

Review by David Gregson, Monday, June 13.

Although I have only seen it twice before in my entire life (and I am now 70 years old), Henry Purcell’s "Dido and Aeneas" holds a very special place in my heart. I discovered the work on an RCA Victor LP recording (which I still own and is actually playable), featuring — of all people! — Kirsten Flagstad as Dido and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Dido’s lady-in-waiting, Belinda. A CD exists on Great Recordings of the Century .

Who knew back then that conductor Geraint Jones and the Mermaid Singers and Orchestra were miles away from anything resembling authentic performance practice! When I first heard it on huge clunky monaural headphones at the Andrew Mellon Library at Choate School (in 1957 to be exact), all I knew was that this piece deeply moved and delighted me with its innumerable charms and profound pathos. In many ways, it was the first opera I took to heart — every word and every note of it. That and Wagner’s "Lohengrin"! When you are in the ninth grade (the so-called "third form" at tony Choate, JFK’s prep school alma mater), the paths to discovery are strange.

As I grew older I collected every recording of "Dido and Aeneas" I could find. At UCSD where I earned a Ph.D. in English Literature, I had a professor that would leave class each session singing "Haste, haste to town," which I always found hilarious; and when I worked for several years for the United States Navy, I loved to quote, for the benefit of the enlisted men, Nahum Tate’s cynical lyrics on sailors’ infidelity: "Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, / And silence their mourning / With vows of returning / But never intending to visit them more." Lines, I might add, brilliantly set by the composer so that the music underlines their meaning.

To me Henry Purcell is one of the greatest composers of all time, and "Dido’s Lament" ("When I am laid in earth") has always been the song I have wanted to have sung at my funeral — although the particulars of the lyrics don’t fit too well, and I am afraid my closest friends would burst into laughter at the reiteration of the "When I am laid" part. Too much of a double entendre briefly, I fear. At the same time, one of the loveliest and saddest melodies I know.

So, here I am — living in San Diego, always knowing about this Bach Collegium outfit — and never going to their concerts. If I ever miss another one it will because I am out of town or dead. I am a devout Bach addict — and this glorious Purcell afternoon in Rancho Santa Fe has won me over utterly. I have rarely been so suddenly and unexpectedly moved. That such talent is here for anyone to enjoy — that such skill and care go into the presentation! What have I been thinking?

First of all, the cast was astonishingly good. Mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano beguiled in what is a very difficult role (if only because singing the "Lament" conjures up comparisons with dozens of über-famous interpreters), and soprano Kathryn Mueller was spectacular vocally and dramatically as Belinda. She broke my heart with her facial expressions alone as she knelt over her dying mistress. I don’t think the evil Sorceress of mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker has ever been done as effectively on recordings, and she took total possession of the role. Which witch is which among the others? Hard to say exactly — but they were all terrific: soprano Anne Whattoff, soprano Angelica Eclar — and the men and women of the chorus. And I liked tenor Scott Mello very much as Aeneas: lovely voice, fine diction. Actually, all the diction seemed fine: I was, however, seated in the first row.

I was stunned by the orchestral playing under the direction of Ruben Valenzuela. Six violins, I think, two violas, violoncello and violone, two theorbos (super-lutes!), guitars and harpsichord. I thought the ensemble was perfect in style and execution — throughly professional. The tempi (much faster than my old Choate recording, of course) were perfectly chosen, and Valenzuela kept the whole hour-long piece totally coherent. That is to say, there was a shape and drive to everything.

For a budget production, the set was genius. Black and white, a suggestion of a Greek temple and of a ship’s sail, and hibernating aspen trees at the back behind silvery strands hanging down. It made me think of some of Martha Graham’s classic modern-dance sets. The designer of this was Gaeum Kim, and Elisa Benzoni did the very effective costumes. All was deftly directed by Kellie Evans-O’Connor.

Some of the academic remarks made before the concert bothered me slightly because I would have preferred the audience hear more about the glories of the Purcell opera than anything about the technical aspects of the theorbo or the theory that Belinda is a bad counsel to Dido and that the witches are all Catholics. I just don’t see the latter. To me they are exactly in the spirit of English fairy lore and of the English stage pantomime in which evil characters are simultaneously wicked and amusing. In the history of all English drama the VICE characters are supposed to be funny. It dates from medieval morality, mystery and miracle plays.

The opera’s first known performance was at a girls’ school in London in 1688. The story of the two lovers would have been familiar to all educated English school boys and girls. Adapted from Virgil’s epic poem, "The Aeneid," it tells of a love doomed by the gods — for Aeneas has survived the Trojan war against the Greeks and is fated to take his people to seek "Italian ground" and to found the city of Rome. The alluring city of Carthage and its beautiful Queen Dido become collateral damage in the inexorable forward movement of history; both lovers are the victims of destiny. Tragically, Dido kills herself as Aeneas departs to pursue his hero’s journey.

Nahum Tate reduces all of this to a digestible English fairy tale free of epic Latin trappings. The Greek gods are shrunken to figures of magic and sorcery. The results are quaint, charming and terribly sincere. It’s difficult to think of any other operas exactly like it.

Anyone who has studied the era in which the work was composed will learn of the powerful urge toward religious and social allegory in art — and, yes, Catholicism often gets a heavy beating. Try reading Spenser’s "The Fairie Queene" (from an earlier time, of course). But England was for a long time swinging back and forth between Catholic and Protestant polarities. Don’t forget those troubling Puritans who beheaded Charles I! But I don’t think it is especially helpful to look for propaganda in "Dido and Aeneas." The work seems to have a unique purity infused with native theatrical traditions.

So Kellie Evans-O’Connor gets it just right. The wicked stuff is both scary and silly, and the whole cast looks like it’s having a rollicking good time. This mixture of innocent wickedness and deep tragedy is the true Purcell work. Granted, Tate is a second-rate poet, but his text for this brief masterpiece is, for me, beyond criticism. And the way Purcell sets it shows a truly astounding sensitivity to meaning of each word.

Thank God for good friends that unexpecteldy invite you to things — and for the Bach Collegium San Diego. They have a new fan in me. Send ’em money and go to their concerts!

I wish I had been supplied with decent photos of the lovely Dido and Belinda — but this was not fated to be. All you get is witches. Sorry.

Bach Collegium San Diego staged Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” at R. Roger Rowe’s Performing Arts Center with two performances on Saturday, June 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 12, at 3 p.m.

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