Vital and Energetic Performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

United StatesUnited States  Purcell, Dido and Aeneas: Mark Morris Dance Group, Philharmonia Baroque, Mark Morris (conductor), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo soprano), Philip Cutlip (baritone). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif. 17.9.2011 (HS)

Domingo Estrada, Jr. and Amber Star Merkens (Photo credit Susan Millman)

These pages are called “seen and heard” to include opera as well as concerts, but Mark Morris’ dance-centric staging gives the phrase new meaning. In this case, the singers were in the pit and those seen were dancers. And Morris, usually unseen as a choreographer, picked up the baton and led the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra in a vital, energetic performance of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas Saturday night at Zellerbach Hall, presented by Cal Performances.

The hour-long opera recounts Virgil’s telling of the Trojan hero Aeneas’s affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage, en route to his founding of Rome. Aeneas wins a reluctant Dido but when a sorceress maneuvers him away, Dido kills herself. All this climaxes with perhaps Purcell’s most memorable aria, “When I am laid to earth,” also known as “Dido’s lament.” And with the resonant voice of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe singing it in the pit with the Philharmonia Baroque, it was the highlight of the evening.

But this takes nothing away from Morris’s troupe of 12 dancers. The production, first seen in Brussels in 1989, featured Morris himself dancing the roles of Dido and the Sorceress. A man performing women’s roles introduced a dangerous layer of ambiguous sexuality, a trope that runs through Morris’s work. In these performances the eight women and four men, all of them clothed in simple black dresses, provided one delight after another in the choreographer’s endlessly inventive, often tongue-in-cheek style.

Despite my ignorance to the niceties of dance, even I noticed how Morris’s choreography attends to the music. Humor often bubbles to the surface, as with the awkward but impeccably timed shaking that accompanied roulades and fioratura in the music. The tall, athletic and limber Amber Star Merkens created a Dido regal and of elegant expression, her Sorceress appearing clumsy and perpetually infuriated. As Aeneas, Domingo Estrada Jr., partnered with her smoothly, and the rest of the cast danced with precision. Often it seemed as if the poses were intended to evoke those seen on Greek vases of antiquity. It was a blast to watch.

Even more rewardingly, the music was up to the dancing. Morris looked good directing the orchestra, and his musical leadership produced a performance long on rhythmic energy and equally refreshing for its tonal beauty. Not surprisingly Blythe’s singing, both as Dido and the Sorceress, was on a higher plane than that of the rest of the cast, but baritone Philip Cutlip (Aeneas) handled his assignment with aplomb and the Philharmonia Baroque chorus distinguished itself with crisp, idiomatic singing.

Harvey Steiman