Her first theatrical vehicle after leaving The King and I has been to join MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale) for a rare two-night staging of Purcell’s short opera, Dido and Aeneas. In this unusual undertaking, she was reunited for the first time in a decade with Victoria Clark who played her mother in the critically acclaimed musical Light in the Piazza, as well as its music director Ted Sperling. What made this rarely staged opera revival even more unusual was a new prologue by theater composer Michael John LaChiusa.
Staged by director/choreographer Doug Varone, Dido and Aeneas was amusingly presented in modern dress with Varone’s dancers playing the ensemble in both operas and pantomiming unseen props and scenery. As the original Purcell music to the surviving Nahum Tate 1689 prologue has been lost, LaChiusa has created a witty new one entitled The Daughters of Necessity: A Prologue, and lasting 15 minutes. After the Chorus (men in bleachers on stage left, women on stage right) welcomed us, they recounted the myth of the Fates: Nono (Sarah Mesko) who spins the thread of life, Decima (Anna Christy) measures it, and Morta (Clark) snips the thread with her scissors.
When Nono accidentally spins a too short thread for Dido, Queen of Carthage, Morta informs them that she will die young. They argue about why that should be, with Morta finally telling them that she will die for love. Since none of them can explain why love should lead to death, they agree to all watch and see. Dressed in khaki work jumpers with their hair in colorful bandanas, the three singers were quite amusing as they sat at a table arguing about the nature of life. Since LaChiusa’s musicals have always verged on the operatic, he was exactly the right composer for this assignment. As a companion piece to the Purcell, LaChiusa has beautifully acquired the Baroque style of the original, and his original libretto, mainly in rhymed couplets like the Tate, was clever and entertaining.
Purcell’s opera began immediately after. Queen Dido (O’Hara) is sorrowful, but her attendant Belinda (Christy) suggests that Carthage’s trouble could be solved if Dido marries the visiting Trojan Prince Aeneas (Elliot Madore). Although Dido at first receives him coldly, she ultimately accepts his proposal of marriage. In the following scene, The Sorceress (Clark) is plotting the destruction of Carthage and its queen. The dancers (dressed in black) appear as her silent minions. She plans to send her trusted elf disguised as the god Mercury to remind Aeneas of his vow to sail to Italy and found Rome.
The Sorceress conjures up a terrible storm in order to send Dido back to the palace from a hunt with Aeneas. When the queen leaves the picnic and hunt to seek shelter, the pretend “Mercury” arrives and brings Aeneas a command from Jove to wait no longer to found the new Troy on the Italian peninsula. Aeneas agrees, broken-hearted that he will have to abandon Dido. In the third part of the opera, the sailors prepare for the journey when the Sorceress appears with her companions to gloat over their success. Back at the palace, Dido and her ladies are disturbed by Aeneas’s disappearance. When he suddenly appears, the queen’s suspicions are confirmed. Altrhough he promises to defy the gods, she rejects him and sends him on his way. Dido sings her last aria, the famed, “When I am laid to Earth,” and dies of grief. A funeral procession carries Dido’s body offstage.
O’Hara applied her luminous voice to the role of Dido and is magical in her duets with Madore’s Aeneas who has a rich baritone. Having played the King of Siam’s companion to such acclaim, she had no trouble with this earlier queen. She gives a memorable rendition of “Dido’s Lament.” Rising opera star Madore brings a suitable virility to his role as the royal warrior who has escaped the Trojan War.
As the Sorceress, Clark had a wonderful time conjuring spells and making mischief with elaborate hand gestures. She appeared to thoroughly enjoy her role of the evil witch with her exuberant performance. Both O’Hara and Clark were gorgeously arrayed in gowns by designer Christian Siriano in various colors, O’Hara, in first green and then midnight blue, and Clark in red and finally black with a skirt that looked like writhing snakes. Making his New York solo debut, Nathaniel Dolquist acquitted himself well in the small role of the First Sailor who sings the drinking song (complete with bottle) that marks Aeneas’ band leaving.
Sopranos Christy and Mesko gave able support to both performers in the two halves of the evening. The Doug Varone dancers wove various patterns around the stage as well as pantomimed sets and props throughout the evening. Particularly notable was Alex Springer as the Elf who transforms into Mercury. The choreography was inspired by Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris which seemed entirely appropriate for this modern dress version of a classic tale. Aside from Sperling’s assured conducting of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the scores included period instruments such as the Baroque Harp and the Therobo. Robert Wolinsky on keyboard made it sound like the 17th century harpsichord. The chorus under the direction of Sperling sounded like they had always sung Baroque opera.
MasterVoices (formerly The Collegiate Chorale) had an unlikely winner with the pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Michael John LaChiusa’s The Daughers of Necessity: A Prologue. On the other hand, when you have Tony Award winners Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark, it should not come as a surprise that it was a glorious musical and theatrical evening. Could there be more opera in their futures? Next season look forward to MasterVoices’ presentation of Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera 27 exploring the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas set at their Paris home at 27 Rue de Fleurus and featuring opera stars Stephanie Blythe and Heidi Stober.
Dido and Aeneas (April 28 – 29, 2016)
MasterVoices, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Doug Varone and Dancers
New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets or more information, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.MasterVoices.org
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission