Presented as the first of three operas in Opera Manhattan's One-Act Opera Festival was Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell’s first opera. It is among the earliest English operas and is perhaps the most monumental of the Baroque period.
First performed in an all-girls school with a libretto by Nahum Tate, it details the love story between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and the Trojan hero Aeneas. Centering around the marriage proposal and eventual departure of Aeneas after he is tricked by the Sorceress, the action is set in a mythical plane. Ultimately, as in every tragic love story, Dido mourns herself to death – here by singing the famous (some say infamous) lament “When I am laid in earth.”
Leading the cast was mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon whose velvety voice gave life to an otherwise dull character. She did not oversing the role, which has entrapped so many before her. Yet she had some trouble relating to the other characters and seemed to be afraid of Aeneas at times. However, when left to herself, she found the subtlety of the character and played it with an acuteness that made one watch her every move. Her suicide, aided here by the ingestion of too much alcohol and a few too many pills, was intriguing and heartbreaking as she begged her court “Remember me…remember me.”
Aeneas was handled gallantly by tenor John Wasniak who put his best foot forward to woo the delicate damsel and then regretfully rode off to war despite his overwhelming desire to comfort her. His pleasant tenor voice gave way to expressivity even though he himself seemed to be a little stiff and unsure of his movements at times.
The Sorceress, mezzo-soprano Selena Moretz, was handled with delicious devilry as she plotted the destruction of Carthage. With a big luscious voice, she put passion into every line and phrase — at times so much so that the pitch was slightly under, giving the listener something of a jolt. Still, she had fun with the piece and it showed.