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.
The overwhelming delight of the evening was soprano Sharin Apostolou as Belinda. She was electrifying and handled the demands of this under-appreciated role to perfection. The coloratura was clean, accurate, and beautifully sung throughout the entire piece. She was bubbly and airy whilst trying to cheer Dido and absolutely devastating when she realized what actions her mistress had taken to relieve the torture.
Effective and talented singing abounded throughout the cast, with Elizabeth Munn, who was charming as the Second Woman, the Sailor, gaily sung by Brian DuBoise, and Sally Ann Thibedeau who was inspiring as Mercury. Carina Zabrodsky and Patty McAvoy presented a delightful pair of witches to do the dirty work of the evil enchantress.
The chorus was stunning and full-voiced, inspiring and heart-wrenching. The music was artfully prepared by Emily Leather who also gave strong support at the piano and was obviously respected by her singers as they responded with a varied and perfectly nuanced performance. Erin Smiley brought a fresh approach and a very well-executed understanding to the direction of this classic tale. However, setting everything in modern dress is not always the best of solutions; since this particular piece is known to be imaginary, mythical and legendary, it came across more as a commercial for The Gap or Old Navy.
Because of the popular early practice of breaking up the original pieces of an opera to be interspersed between the acts of plays, the score of Dido and Aeneas does not exist in its entirety, making it seem awkward and disjointed when performed as a single work. This is a problem for any production, compounded by the fact that archaic English is so hard to understand by today’s typical audience members.
Still, Opera Manhattan presented an enjoyable production that put the music first and foremost. Despite the minor annoyances of the theater space and the disjointed appearance of the piece, this company presented a lovely retelling of a beloved work of art – giving the audience a relaxing wintry afternoon of an extraordinary Baroque opera.