Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dido and Aeneas in Amsterdam

Henry Purcell (composer), Nathum Tate (librettist)
Dido And Aeneas
October 3, 2009
Venue: Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
Company: DNO
Directed by: Deborah Warner
Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie

Dido - Malena Ernman
Aeneas - Luca Pisaroni
Belinda - Judith van Wanroij
Second Woman - Lina Markeby

Sorceress - Hilary Summers
First Witch - Céline Ricci
Second Witch - Ana Quintans
Spirit - Marc Mauillon
Sailor - Ben Davies

Pictures and Trailer (c) DNO

Dido and Aeneas is an opera that is difficult in its simplicity. The story is simple enough: Dido is in love with Aeneas. Aeneas reciprocates the feeling. Stirred on by Belinda, Dido's confidante, they hit it off and go hunting. Meanwhile, a group of witches gathers and they decide on ruining Dido by separating her from Aeneas by - hark! hark! - conjuring a spirit, letting him pretend to be Mercury with a command from the gods (namely that Aeneas leave Carthage at once). The spirit appears to Aeneas, who immediately agrees to sail off. Aeneas then breaks the news to Dido, who gets rather distressed. Aeneas then offers to stay anyway ("I'll stay!"), but Dido does not want him anymore ("away, away!"). Aeneas sails off and Dido dies (from poison in this production). And all that in 60 minutes at the very most. Which is, honestly, impossible to pull of credibly.

Dido, supported by Belinda and another woman, sings her lament and dies.

So it's all the more surprising that Deborah Warner actually pulled off a credible Dido and Aeneas: in this production, it is highlighted that, for Dido, it's all or nothing. Dido also seems to know beforehand that, if she gets involved with Aeneas, it's doomed to end badly. So, we get to really understand her, and sympathize with her. We see a Dido who is initially trying to protect herself from heartache, then - advised by her confidante Belinda - decides to give it her all, and then - when she learns that Aeneas really wants to leave her - harshly sends him off to sea and herself off to death by means of the bottle of poison she has been carrying around all along, 'just in case'. So, a lot of credit goes to the mezzo Malena Ernman, who proved herself an amazing singer and actress (and whose "When I am laid..." was thoroughly heartbreaking).

To the Hills and the Vales...

Praise should also be given to Luca Pisaroni (Aeneas), who's almost starting to become DNO's resident early music baritone (which is, by the way, a very good thing - artists of his calibre, reliability and acting abilities are hard to come by). Aeneas is a tiny role, but Pisaroni managed to fill it out as much as possible. Incredible though it may seem, we also got to understand a bit of Aeneas. Aeneas is utterly charming, tosses around alluring smiles everywhere, but for him the relationship with Dido is in the end just a summer love, a fling, not meant to go too deep and not meant to last. When he's called away, it doesn't bother him - the only thing he worries about is how to break the news to Dido. If anything, Aeneas wants to avoid problems.

Dido and Aeneas fiddling around

The witches, although intentionally incredibly over the top, were quite nice. In their case, the music was handled quite flexibly, probably in order to reinforce their almost fairy tale-like quality ("Look at me! I'm an evil witch! I want death and destruction!"). Belinda, Dido's confidante, was also well-sung and well-acted: she is portrayed as the type of woman who only reads trashy romance novels and gets excited when she can actually help Dido and Aeneas on their way to what she probably thinks will be their happy end. And to top it off, all this under the musical auspices of the beautifully-playing Les Arts Florrisants conducted by baroque guru William Christie - one would almost think things couldn't be done better.

The one point of criticism I have on this production, though, is the incorporation of the group of little schoolgirls that runs around, screams and dances in between the acts. Seriously - why? Okay, I get why: the opera was probably composed for an all-girls school, so it's nice to see that the performance history of the work is taken into account as well. Nevertheless, it didn't quite work out (perhaps due to lack of rehearsal time?) - the girls were kind of confused all the time as to what their next move was going to be, and had to be constantly guided on stage by a number of adults (which, to be quite honest, looked quite silly and unprofessional - like witnessing a ballet lesson, it's only fun for the parents of the children in question). But we'll let it slip as just a minor issue of this production.

Furthermore, as you can probably see, the sets and the dresses were absolutely lavish, and really helped to increase the impact of the opera. The set could, by just a slight adjustment in lighting and props, be made to complement the atmosphere completely - light and meadow-like when Dido and Aeneas are hunting and frolicking, desolate and cold when Dido is dying.

The production's trailer on Youtube

A last thing that slightly bothered me (and does not really relate directly to the production) was that this production was ousted from the Muziektheater by Michel van der Aa's After Life to the much smaller Stadsschouwburg (DNO could have figured that more people were going to want to see Dido and Aeneas than After Life, so it would have made more sense had they swapped venues - D&A sold out in mere days, while After Life needed incessant marketing in order to attract visitors). Well, live and learn, I guess (or perhaps they had a very good reason, one never knows). All in all, I had an amazing evening (although I still think it was a bit too short, and some sort of double bill - with, say, something else by Purcell, could have been pulled off).

Coming Early November: Lots of write-ups on lots of performances! (Renée Fleming's concert, L'Elisir d'Amore at DNO, Cecilia Bartoli's concert and Salomé at DNO - November is going to be a good month for Amsterdam!).

Monday, October 5, 2009

La Juive Revisited

Believe it or not, but I have been to La Juive at the Muziektheater again. Not because I bought tickets for another performance, but because I actually won two tickets (yes, I actually WON something - the last time I won something (a Victorian mansion, Playmobile style) was when I was ten years old). Instead of just giving away the tickets (which probably would have been the noble thing to do), I decided to go again myself and maybe get the chance to 'reconsider' some things.

And I did. Somehow (and I don't think it's just due to the amazing seats I got!), I got to appreciate the magnificent performance each and every single cast member delivered more. Because they did deliver! Even the weak link of the previous performance I attended, Dennis O'Neill, was in a very good vocal shape this evening, and provided a more credible Eléazar (of course within the limits of the character's credibility). I also got the feeling that some elements in the cast's acting had been adapted - it seemed that at least a bit of the rigidity of the tableaux vivants had been thrown out of the window.

Of course, the essential weaknesses of the opera and production remained: the story was still over the top (in a negative sense) - some characters, no matter how much the singers tried to enliven them, simply remain inexorably flat. The production - martians included - remained ineffective, and eerily strange.

So, all in all, I was glad to see the production again, and I have warmed to it somewhat. What I really hope is that Annick Massis has enjoyed her time and performances in Amsterdam enough to return in the near future for, say, the title role in Lucia - her extremely agile, beautiful and warm voice (and, of course, her prowess in the role) would make for an amazing reprisal of DNO's Lucia production.

Coming up soon: my review of DNO's Dido & Aeneas