Monday, November 3, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Hello, I Must Be Going" (on Purcell's Dido and Aeneas)

hello, i must be going
by Douglas Messerli

Nahum Tate (libretto), Henry Purcell (music) Dido and Aeneas / LAOpera, Los Angeles, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the production I attended was a matinee on November 2, 2014

Henry Purcell’s lovely Baroque opera, first performed in the summer of 1688, was probably part of the annual spring celebrations at Priest’s boarding school for women. The work represents Purcell’s only “traditional” opera—if we define the tradition to be the kind uninterrupted musical theater that developed later through Handel, and the dominant forms of the genre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certainly, after Dido and Aeneas Purcell did not abandon writing for theater, but the musical forms he worked in were so-called “semi-operas,” music mixed with speech.

     After seeing an high-definition, live broadcast of the Met’s Bizet’s Les troyens just last year, in which the relationship between Dido and Aeneas  played out over the last two long acts of the work, during which, much of the time, the two languidly lay, embracing upon a huge, multi-pillowed bed, the LAOpera production, based on the Frankfurt Opera version directed by Barrie Kosky, seems so-attenuated in its hour of performance time, that we hardly get a chance to actually realize that the two have consummated their sudden love before the hero, most emphatically, trots back to Italy, slamming the door behind him, a bit like Ibsen’s Nora.

     Indeed, everything in Purcell’s representation of the tragic romance is theatrically played out before the entire court, within the kind of frontal friezes that that might remind one more of gestural early human-scapes of Boris Godunov than a jaunt into the local countryside Tate’s libretto calls for. Indeed, the first scenes are played out in this version of the Purcell work on a long bench upon which the entire cast is seated beside Dido (Paula Murrihy) as she cries out in her suffering for her desires to embrace of the new conqueror, Aeneas (Liam Bonner). No sooner has the beautiful Carthaginian queen declared that “Peace and I are strangers grown,” than her maid Belinda (Kateryna Kasper) reassures her that Aeneas shares her passion and agitates for a marriage between the two royals, despite Dido’s reservations. And almost as quickly as she and others have joined in their court-wide blessing, all rush to hill and dale to celebrate—with the Kosky production suggesting in the secondaries’ behavior and—at least in two cases—their in-the-buff attire, wilder goings-on than that original young boarding school girls might have ever imagined. Although Purcell’s opera makes little to-do about the Dido-Aeneas romance—a brief scene of flirtation and a couple of short kisses representing their formal introduction to each other—we surely recognize that something far more serious has occurred between the two lovers than a simple sharing of a picnic and hunt.

     Even these seemingly uneventful festivities, however, are quickly interrupted by distant thunder, the sound of which is first picked up with the already suspicious Dido, who, along with Belinda, encourages the entire court to scurry back to the castle (“Haste, haste to town.”). Dido might well fear for those claps of thunder, for, as we already have been shown, through the meeting of the Sorceress and her two witchy comrades within a nearly cave (the marvelously comic trio of the large-framed Black countertenors John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen, and Darryl Taylor), evil plans are being hatched to destroy the Queen and her city both; and soon after, Aeneas is accosted by Mercury’s spirit demanding that he return, as he promised Jove, to rebuild Troy. 
     As attractive as Aeneas may appear to both Dido and the audience, he is clearly dunderhead when it comes to love, worrying more about how we find the words to explain his decision to choose duty over his just-consumed relationship. That other great African explorer, Captain Spaulding of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers assertively proclaimed the sentiment now so perplexing the young Aeneas in the Kalmar-Ruby song, “Hello, I Must Be Going.” Margaret Dumont, however, was no Dido; and Aeneas surely realizes that his leaving can only end in her death. Accordingly, despite the fact that she has heard the rumors of the Trojan men preparing to weigh anchor (“Come away, fellow soldiers”), Aeneas attempts to placate the queen by lying.

     Dido reacts with scorn to his hypocritical declaration that he has decided to remain, declaring that even having thought of leaving her has already betrayed her—as indeed he has! Given her insistence that he now leave her, Kosky’s Aeneas, as I have suggested, plays it almost comically, rushing off just as abruptly as he has previously arrived in Dido’s court. 
     There has indeed been something about his speedy comings and goings that, along with the abbreviated story the opera tells, Tate’s plot dooms any fruition of the sentiment that its characters might have felt. And in that sense, Purcell’s tuneful garden-party-like opera suddenly becomes something far-more dangerous and threatening, as if its central character has not only been frightened by a clap of thunder but by the specter of a snake swallowing its own tail. 
      And so, quite naturally, Purcell’s work end as it begin, with Dido singing of her fears upon her long bench-like throne. But this time she is not accompanied by the entire court, but stands and sits alone, singing now not just her doubts, but regrets, which gradually converge into a dirge for her own death, “When I am laid in Earth.” 
      Despite the seeming lightness of Purcell’s work, which doubtlessly led Kosky to wrap his production within so many comic-like moments—and apart from the sometimes comic-book-like series of friezes with which the composer and his librettist encapsulate the abbreviated adventures of their heroes—the opera, finally, is transformed from a display of vernal gavottes into a dance of death.

     Purcell’s music beautifully reveals this transformation, gently shifting throughout the last scene from fury, to pain and sorrow, and, finally, to silence and death. Unfortunately, Kosky, evidently unable to figure out a way to help his Dido attain the same shifts in character as she fluctuates between these emotions, forces Murrihy to cry out in spasms of what is evidently meant to represent internal pain, turning the final tragic moments of Purcell’s work into a kind grand Guignol-like travesty as utters what first might appear to be sobs that turn into gurgles of vomiturition In the beginning, these simply make the audience a bit uncomfortable, but they finally leave us with a deep sense of embarrassment at the very moment when tears might instead be welling up beneath our eyes. As a young man standing near me intoned to his friend during the intermission: “I thought she’d never die!”    
     I’ll forgive such an overall graceful production, however, that rather serious flaw. And Purcell’s music, under the direction of Steven Sloane, stood up to the test, charming every one of us again.


Los Angeles, November 3, 2014

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