03 August 2009

Glimmerglass 2009: Dido & Aeneas

Mumford and Moore

I rounded out my weekend at Glimmerglass Opera with a matinee of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in the premiere performance of Jonathan Miller’s production for the company. This piece, just over a single hour in length, is a great favorite of mine, a pure concentration of music and emotion, from high comedy to noblest tragedy. Inventive melodies linger just long enough to win the listener, then scurry away, to be supplanted by something sweeter still. The English text is set with such grace, reflecting natural inflections and breath patterns in speech, that in a sense it’s no surprise that Britain failed to produce another truly great opera composer for so many generations: who would dare to challenge Purcell’s mastery?

The first known performance of Dido and Aeneas was at a girls’ school, and the piece remains an excellent vehicle for young singers: in an intimate house, with its smallish orchestra, the score gives everyone a chance to shine (and, I daresay, to learn a bit about singing). Glimmerglass dug deep into its Young American Artists Program to round out an ensemble led by a couple of relative grownups — notably baritone David Adam Moore, returning to the role of Aeneas, in which I first heard him.

Heroic: Moore, with the Ensemble

The last time I heard David live, he was portraying the AIDS-stricken Pryor Walter in Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America, and calling on a suitably taut, feverish intensity that often reached high into his voice. As Aeneas, his vocal colors became plush and darkly sensual in the love scenes, yet never lost their heroic gleam — in short, David sounded like an almost completely different singer.

He was well-matched by Tamara Mumford as Dido, whose velvety warblings seemed to wrap me up in a cloak of sound; she’s drop-dead gorgeous, too, so they made a perfectly credible pair of lovers. Especially in her final aria, “When I am laid in earth,” she located a regal expression that suited the character but was denied her by the staging, depicting all the characters as a gaggle of college (or music-conservatory!) students. Curiously, the only woman in a skirt onstage wasn’t the queen but her attendant, Belinda, sung by Joélle Harvey with the delightful suggestion in her insistent coloratura that her involvement in the progress of her friends’ love affair isn’t entirely healthy.

Bad Guys: Liza Forrester, Costanzo, and Kathryn Guthrie embody evil.

The great surprise of the performance was Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor playing the Sorceress who conspires against our heroes’ happiness. Looking all of 13 years old (yet unnervingly sexy), hunching his shoulders in a black hoodie, he unleashed brilliant, supple tone and lacerating, Cockney-accented menace. (All the baddies in this production employed remarkably good Cockney, in what seems to have been an attempt by Miller to inject a note of class rivalry into the story.) Costanzo won the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions this year, and he’s really a talent to follow: I popped up in my seat the instant he opened his mouth. He sounds like nobody else.

The “contemporary youth” approach to the staging worked just fine, mostly, eliciting from all the singers a relaxed, honest stage deportment. Trouble is, this isn’t a story about ordinary kids: it’s about a queen who dies of heartbreak, and at some point, the staging has to leap beyond the realm of everyday life. Miller didn’t manage the trick. “It was great fun, wasn’t it?” Sir Jonathan said to me backstage afterward (not knowing me from Adam), and indeed it was fun — but apart from the musical aspects of the performance (under the elegant direction of Michael Beattie at the harpsichord), the show was never ennobling or transcendent, as it should and quite easily could have been.

Mumford, Moore, and Harvey


Michael Leddy said...

"Great fun" doesn't sound right for Dido and Aeneas.

Do you have a favorite Dido on record? Susan Graham, maybe? Elaine: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Me: Janet Baker.

William V. Madison said...

Oh, I have lots of favorites -- and the three ladies you name are among them. One other, though hardly the most idiomatic in English, is the Polish contralto Ewa Podles´, whose account of “When I am laid in earth” on her Airs Célèbres recording is forever haunting. Also worthy of mention: my first Dido on recording, Kirsten Flagstad; nobody yet (not even Jessye Norman, who really tried) has beaten her regal expression.

Ultimately, I do prefer Susan’s Berlioz Dido to her Purcell. The night I saw her (luckily preserved on DVD) in Les Troyens, she really caught fire, and her “Adieu, fière cité” kicked it up to 11. (Actually, she kicked it to about 111. One of the most astonishing performances I ever saw.) Curious that either of us Texans would find the French version more congenial than the English, but that’s the way I hear it.