This is a clever, warm, and eventually quite moving, properly distanced performance of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, produced especially for Covid-times by the Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti, Modena. Director Stefano Monti has placed the musicians in the center of a fine trompe l’oeil floor on the stalls level of the theater painted to look like the ocean’s waves; the effect is engrossing.
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Dido and Aeneas. Tragic opera in three acts by Henry Purcell. 1689 or earlier. Libretto by Nahum Tate, after his play Brutus of Alba and Virgil’s Aeneid. First performance at Josias Priest’s school in Chelsea, London, before December 1689, with a possible earlier performance as a court masque.
Didone Michela Antenucci
Enea Mauro Borgioni
Belinda Ilaria Vanacore
Seconda donna Alice Molinari
La maga Benedetta Mazzuccato
Prima strega / Uno spirito Maria Bagalà
Seconda strega Eleonora Filipponi
Un marinaio Giovanni Maria Palmia
MAR / Ensemble Alraune
Direttore Mario Sollazzo
Coro Lirico di Modena / I Madrigalisti Estensi
Maestro del coro Michele Gaddi
Regia Stefano Monti
It’s clear from the start that this production will be no-nonsense storytelling, adapted for dire times. When the singers are not on the same level as the orchestra/waves, they are on stage, which is slashed on a severe diagonal. Mimes and dancers add to the central tale; along with chorus and soloists, they move from stage to waves. The plot remains central; soloists’ movements are filled with the gravity of the situation.
The strange, uncredited costumes are fine, with Dido and her attendant wearing what I believe is a dressmaker’s form – a ribbed “cage” without the dress material. I’m stumped by the lack of grandeur for the Queen of Carthage, but it is, I guess, in keeping with the “stripped down” performance.
Musically, conductor Mario Sollazzo offers a sensible, dramatically valid performance, with a few surprises. The first is the addition of an unrelenting drumbeat with the opening music; exciting, attention-getting, but odd; this percussion re-appears periodically.
Elsewhere, tempi choices can be jarring: If ‘Cupid only throws the dart’ has ever been played more slowly I haven’t experienced it; it seems eccentric. “But ere we this perform,” is similarly slow but makes sense; when the tempo picks up, the drama is clear. “Oft she visits this lone mountain,” conversely, is so fast that it sounds like a warning, lest Dido be devoured, like Acteon, by his own dogs. Above the action, in silhouette, is an orgiastic scene. The period instruments play handsomely with ornaments galore; at times it seems we are in uncharted territory, but we’re never bored.
Plenty of vibrato
Speaking of which, Alice Molinari as the Second Woman sings “Oft she visits” mostly off-key and with more exclamation than ease of expressivity. In fact, there’s a lot of that: the fine voiced Mauro Borgioni sings many lines of his role as if they were composed by Verdi, with plenty of vibrato and underlining. And vibrato is in evidence throughout: clearly, period instruments or not, this is a “later” view of the score. I won’t impose my own taste on the decision, but caveat HIP fanatics. This is an aggressively sung performance, with vocal histrionics at times of a most Romantic nature.
It’s marvelous in the sailor scenes and the witches excite, even if a bit off pitch. Nor is Michela Antenucci a HIP stylist – no Emma Kirkby, she, nor Catherine Bott, nor Maria Christina Kiehr – but she is remarkably vivid as Dido, her diction excellent. The Queen’s regality is pointedly contrasted with her later pain; her lament, is stunning, embellishments and all.