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18.6.06

Long in the Waiting, Longer Still in the Hearing: Cavalli's Didone Hits Washington

Ignoti Dei Opera's La DidonePier Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone got its North American premiere in Washington over the last three days, nestled away in American University’s pretty and functional Greenberg Theatre. Ionarts promised a little star for your book if you attended; we should offer another one for everyone who sat through the entire opera. If you did, you will have gotten your secco recitativo fill for the year, La Didone’s three-plus hours (after Ignoti Dei Opera’s artistic director Timothy Nelson had mercifully cut some 45 additional minutes) consisting of three-quarters recitative as it does. Baroque audiences were more different than alike us; and they would doubtlessly have experienced and enjoyed the entertainment and novelty that La Didone provides to its patient listeners in a different, perhaps more intense way. Baroque fanatics and musicologists alike must have been spellbound at the production, though: how long has it been since we saw and heard a little orchestra replete with cornettos, lirone, two (!) theorbos, viola da gamba, and the like?

The story is the popular myth of Aeneas (Enea), son of Venus and Anchises, the fall of Troy, his flight, the consequent stopover in Carthage, and the eventual founding of Rome. (Berlioz treats the exact same story in Les Troyens, which, at 5½ hours, feels nearly as long as La Didone.) Aeneas’s story is littered with various women, including Dido (the Didone of the opera’s title), Queen of Carthage, who falls in love (Amor’s intervention helps) with him after he left most of his female family members dead and/or raped in the rubble of Troy. Add insane African kings, assorted gods, children, and old fathers to taste and you are good to go. Librettist Giovan Francesco Busenello does the inevitable (even 300 years before Hollywood), he gives the story a happy end in that Dido does not (successfully) commit suicide.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, 'La Didone': A Long, Slow Night at the Opera (Washington Post, June 19)

Charles T. Downey, Going for Baroque in Washington (DCist, June 19)

Tim Smith, U.S. premieres uncover roots of opera's past (Baltimore Sun, June 20)
Stage, costume, and set direction were all in the hands of Ignoti Dei Opera’s founder, Mr. Nelson – who also shared the music direction with harpsichordist Adam Pearl (whom I last heard during the Paris-on-the-Potomac celebrations, and Charles at La Maison Française). For a small company with the consequent financial limitations it is important that good ideas make up for the necessary lack of splendor. With evocative lighting (Kel Millionie) and pointed use of colors (crimson red and white, mostly), the spare sets with screens and backdrops were very effective, often beautifully setting the action. Costumes were simple, modern day dress and worked well enough for this production, too, even if they were devoid of new ideas. Unused to seeing Baroque opera in the U.S. as we are, much less in a modern staging, it didn’t bother that the blatantly symbolic garb (the male, the warrior, in camouflage with boots, the frail father – Anchise – in the latest nursing-home bespoke) smacked of 1980s theater direction.

The orchestra performed beautifully throughout, although one felt for Anna Marsh, the Tambourine-Lady, who got to clap her instrument six, seven times every half-hour, and could have knitted a sweater or two in the time between. On harpsichord and organ, Mr. Pearl led the troupe with seasoned skill that belies his relative youth. The singing, meanwhile, was a different story. To make mention of the proverbial “mixed bag” would be an understatement. There were basically three groups into which they fell: the admirably courageous, the admirably performing, and Rosa Lamoreaux.

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Cavalli, La Didone, Hengelbrock et al.
As Venus, the latter was simply a cut above the rest of the cast. Scott Elliot, in various roles, provided a nice bass and even better, well-judged and appropriately over-the-top acting. Emily Noel, as Creusa (Enea’s wife) and Anna (Didone’s sister), was very fine and arguably the best of the non-Lamoreaux singers. Aaron Sheehan’s tenor for Enea was variable but compared nicely to the other male voices, always good for a pleasant surprise here or there and admirable for his stamina, never mind learning all that text for a role that he won’t revive very often over the course of his future career. Rebecca Duren as Ascanio, Amore, and one of Didone’s girlfriends was the most versatile singer on stage. Her portrayal of Ascanio, the son of Enea, was so eerily on target (including the voice, which she was able to make sound like a treble’s), that I had to check the cast list to makes sure she was not in fact a little boy. Her training in dance and the ability to squeeze a casual cartwheel into her performance only enhanced matters. Bonnie McNaughton, the soprano who was Cassandra and Didone, too, was in the category of those that pleased – and not just for her ravishing appearance. Little wonder that countertenor Brian Cummings went – literally – nuts for her. His performance, sadly, was not his best on Friday; at times he did not even seem to be at home in the role of countertenor. That vocal region, usually the prerogative of frustrated or failed baritones, didn’t suit him as much as when he broke into full voice in the upper tenor regions. One good recitative (on ‘women and lies being but twins’) showed that he can do better. Kristen Dubenion-Smith had fine moments – as Hecuba, Queen of Troy, more so than “Dama,” one of Didone’s playmates. Tenor Jeffrey Rich (Anchise, Cacciatoro, Sicheo) did not have much to do but did that well. Elizabeth Baber (Fortuna, Juno, “Dama”) hid a good voice under the hazy veil of an insufficiently trained instrument.

With a more even cast and an opera that is more interesting to the music lover’s ear than to the scholar’s research (how I would love to hear a Lully work or Vivaldi’s La verità in cimento) Ignoti Dei Opera might even better fill that gaping Baroque opera void in Washington, and one wishes them all the experience, luck, and donations they need to continue to grow into their ambitious plans.