Dallas — Henry Purcell’s short opera Dido & Aeneas is not typically thought of as a piece that takes naturally to being swelled for large settings. The libretto relies heavily on a knowledgeable audience that is familiar with the story—intimate as it is, with an uneven dramatic pace. Often thought of as one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical compositions, it is exactly the type of work that fits snuggly into the American Baroque Opera Co.’s wheelhouse.
Last weekend, the company continued their commitment to providing the community with historically authentic pop-up Baroque performances in unique space, this time at the TreeHouse design and renovation company in Dallas. Their partially staged rendition of Dido & Aeneas, Purcell’s first and only all-sung opera, was, in a word, charming, though not as captivating of a production as I’ve come to expect from this troupe.
On a cramped platform overlooking the store’s first floor, the stage is minimally set with a chaise lounge and an ornate end table. The costumes are also minimal, with most of the cast wearing all black with detailed appointments to set their characters apart.
Some of the show’s lead voices provided decent enough portrayals, if not lacking that small, though crucial, touch of energy and engagement that lends to a more three-dimensional experience. Mezzo-soprano Laura Warriner Bray’s Dido, the lovelorn queen of Carthage, for example, was dark and lovely, though not altogether full, with a resonant clarity in the high registers but a clouded mid-low range. Her opposite, our gallant Tojan prince Aeneas, provided by Barrett Radziun’s smooth lyric tenor, was heroic in tone, at least when it mattered, particularly at the close of Act II with “Stay Prince and hear great Jove’s command.” Countertenor Nicholas Garza gave the Sorcerer a unique interpretation that was, indeed, engaging to watch. His character was present and committed, taking some artistic license in the part’s timbre that, I think, could go either way. His top shimmered richly through well drawn-out lines, while the bottom-ends of phrases were gnarled and brassy. For the witchy character, this worked, though I would’ve preferred more warmth here, as to better fit the period’s style.
Soprano Jendi Tarde did well to provide the production with an appropriately bright, supportive energy that drove the work forward. A vocal standout, her interpretation of the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Belinda, was equal in sensitivity and athleticism. What’s more, her sense of dramatic awareness helped to maintain an organic sense of progression through the narrative. The four-part choir also stood out. Anna Fredericka Popova (soprano), David Estrada (countertenor), Alex Bumpas (tenor), and Cody Conway (baritone) were, together, a well-blended blanket of tonal harmony that was expertly sensuous and alert.
The ABOC’s artistic and musical director Eric Smith does well to pay homage to Purcell’s courtly sensibilities with Dido & Aeneas. All in all, the performances were technically sound and aesthetically pleasing, however with this collection of locally based powerhouse vocalists, one may be forgiven for missing a tiny glint of verve from this production.
That being said, it is always worth noting that the mission of this company opens new approaches toward interpretation, for players and audience members alike. How they manage to breathe life into gems like this one in such condensed and inventive ways, while still holding on to the most important and precious nuances of the period, is a triumph in and of itself.