Surprise! Tony Award winners, Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark sing opera.
by Joel Benjamin
The highly respected Collegiate Chorale has morphed into Master Voices, deciding to concentrate on staged productions rather than choral recital concerts. They succeeded admirably with an imaginative production of Henry Purcell’s baroque opera Dido & Aeneas, conducted by Broadway veteran Ted Sperling and starring Broadway stars and Tony Award winners, Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark, reunited on stage for the first time since their exquisite A Light in the Piazza at the Lincoln Center Theater in 2005. Doug Varone, a long-time dance and off-Broadway favorite directed and choreographed, making the most of limited means.
Purcell composed his opera to a libretto by English poet Nahum Tate which included a prologue. The music to that prologue is long lost, so Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party) was commissioned to re-fashion and re-compose one which he called “The Daughters of Necessity: A Prologue.” The Master Voices, arranged on two risers—mostly divided by gender—with soloists standing to deliver Mr. LaChiusa’s modern language interpolations, including an invitation to the audience to listen and enjoy their offering. Some funny contemporary references to such things as Trump and New Jersey amused the audience before Master Voices segued into the original libretto’s prologue, a scene of three Fates, dressed in dreary overalls, who spin, measure and dole out the string of life. Ms. Clark, Anna Christy (the soprano who later was a fine Belinda in Dido & Aeneas) and mezzo Sarah Mesko (who also took on several roles in the main body of the opera) made the most of their prologue roles, often interacting humorously with chorus members. They sang LaChiusa’s pastiche score, vibrantly arranged by Bruce Coughlin, as if it were composed by Purcell back from the grave.
Dido & Aeneas formally began with the chorus now more formally dressed. The female characters—Dido, Belinda/First Witch (both played by Ms. Christy), Second Woman/Second Witch (both played by Ms. Mesko) and the divine Victoria Clark as Sorceress/Spirit—wore gorgeous gowns by Christian Siriano and Aeneas (the handsome, smooth-voiced bass Elliot Madore) was in a sleek tuxedo, looking quite dapper.
Mr. Varone used eight dancers from his modern dance troupe, dressed in simple black, as everything from background characters to celebrants to decorative pathways and, finally, to the funeral pyre of the fading Dido as she sang the most famous aria from the opera, “When I Am Laid in Earth,” which Ms. O’Hara executed with utterly gorgeous tones, brilliant dynamics and understanding of the beseeching tone. Mr. Sperling made Purcell’s ingenious orchestration, with its use of a dark ground bass under the aria’s melody, perfectly clear and heartbreaking.
What was clear from this gung-ho semi-staged production is that Dido & Aeneas, composed for the period’s equivalent of an all-girl high school, is lumpy in its drama, with Ms. Clark’s character of the Sorceress cursing the romance of Dido and Aeneas for no dramatically apparent reason. Psychological depth is not this opera’s strong point, although all is forgiven when a cast of such fine singers puts its stamp on the music and words. All were fine with Ms. Clark eating up the stage with her wonderful histrionics and Ms. O’Hara using the most voluptuous parts of her voice, never neglecting the delicate ornamentation necessary to this period. The other three soloists were equally impressive.
David Korins’ suggestive backdrop projections; David Grill’s lighting; and the aforementioned costumes helped give life to the show. Add in Mr. Sperling’s sterling conducting of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s—with supplementary period instruments adding to this production’s authenticity—and the overall impression was a luminous and artistically satisfying production.
Dido & Aeneas was performed April 28-29, 2016 by Master Voices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale) at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) www.mastervoices.org. Running time was one hour 20 minutes.
Photos: Erin Baiano