Opera: LA Opera’s “Dido and Aeneas” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Jane Rosenberg

Two opera tales of thwarted love: one, Dido and Aeneas, in which a heroic queen loses her lover and her kingdom; the other, Bluebeard’s Castle, in which a doomed aristocrat loses his bride and his salvation. Both operas constitute the very definition of tragedy, a form that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character with a fateful or disastrous conclusion: opposite to comedy.”

The LA Opera served up these two stirring masterpieces in a double bill directed by Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin. One, Bluebeard, stayed true to its tragic form, the other, Dido, was a puzzling foray into comedy.

Much has been made of the unusual pairing of these two short operas created over two hundred years apart. I found this decision an inspired one for they have much in common – most noteworthy being the glimpse of Eden shared by the lovers, Dido and Aeneas and Judith and Bluebeard, followed by banishment and despair. They seem two sides of an existential coin. And musically, they compliment each other – the transparent delicacy of Purcell coupled with the expressive vitality of Bartok. Why Kosky chose to subvert his thoughtful construction by reimagining the haunting Dido and Aeneas as a comic romp is perplexing.

The opera opens on the chorus and principals crowded together on a long white bench running the width of the stage. The bench is pushed to within a few feet of the proscenium with a pleated gray screen poised directly behind. Figures are arrayed in pastel colors and the house lights are up. So far so good. Then Belinda, Dido’s lady in waiting, sings, “Shake the cloud from off your brow.” With exaggerated hand motions, her head bobbing and eyes popping, a startled smile on her face, Belinda foreshadows all that is amiss with the concept. At every turn, Kosky directs his principals to act out broad comedy better suited for operas like Falstaff or Gianni Schicchi. Yes, Kosky entertains with the slapstick antics of Dido’s attendants who become a gaggle of sorority sisters rather than the concerned subjects of the noble queen. He has the audience roaring with the Sorceress and two witches (three countertenors replacing the traditional mezzo-soprano and two sopranos). And he elicits a laugh when Aeneas slams off the stage and out of the theater like a petulant schoolboy. But this staging goes beyond interpretation to become a misreading of the magnitude of Purcell’s tragedy.

“Dido and Aeneas”

Culled from Book IV, The Passion of the Queen, from Virgil’s The Aeneid, the opera, Dido and Aeneas, tells the tale of Dido, the proud queen of Carthage, who reluctantly gives her heart to Aeneas, a prince of Troy, only to be abandoned. Her great love lost, Dido dies broken hearted and, with her death, so too dies her kingdom. Musically, it is supremely beautiful, recounting a story of inconsolable sorrow, which permeates the score. Just listening to Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid in earth,” can bring on tears. It is one of the most moving arias in all opera. Kosky’s concept, though exhilarating at times, undermines the nature of the opera, draining it of pathos and its final catharsis. Dido and Aeneas are reduced to teenagers with a crush on each other, making Dido’s empire seem more like a high school corridor than the vast kingdom of Carthage. When Dido sings her Lament at the end of the opera, one is left curiously unmoved.

Kosky makes a directorial decision to overlay the concluding orchestral music with Dido, alone on stage, convulsively sobbing – a sobbing that goes on for about five minutes. I’m sure, for some, this is a startling piece of theater, but for me, it is an unforgivable distraction from the music and incomprehensible in light of the preceding comedy.

Paula Murrihy, as Dido, puts heart and soul into her performance, but her queen is never allowed the nobility of her role to shine forth. Musically, she brings a lovely luster to the upper registers, but one wished for more heft in the lower registers, which convey the core of Dido’s passion.

Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas
Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas

As Aeneas, Liam Bonner’s baritone is a thing of beauty. A knockout in last season’s Billy Budd, Bonner has all the gifts: a supple sound, skilled acting, an attractive presence, and personal charisma. His Aeneas shares the same fate as the other principals, however. Cast as a wayward schoolboy, he isn’t permitted to expand into the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. Fortunately, his potent voice conveys the grandeur of his character.

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch
John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch

Kateryna Kasper is a solid Belinda with a warm and beguiling soprano. As the Sorceress and her two witches, John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen, and Darryl Taylor bring the house down, but seem more like exiles from a Mel Brooks movie than the conspiring trio who precipitate the tragedy. In fact, they are so hilarious that someone should design a new production around them. Kosky’s strength in this piece resides in directing the machinations of the chorus. They move en masse across the stage and into the orchestra pit, creating tableaux worthy of heroic painting. Thanks to Grant Gershon, the chorus sings as an organic whole, interpreting the music as Purcell wrote it with crystalline purity.

Conducted by Steven Sloane, the LA Opera Orchestra, though marvelous in Bluebeard’s Castle, seems unsteady in Dido, lacking cohesiveness, resulting in a loss of clarity and transparency. It is with Bluebeard’s Castle that the orchestra shines, savoring the complexities of Bartok’s vigorous score, with its debt to Debussy and Hungarian folk music.

An opera written for two voices and large orchestra, Bluebeard’s Castle (also titled Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), is a mesmerizing portrayal of the strangled emotions of twentieth century man. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, this Bluebeard doesn’t end as well. Abandoning her family and betrothed, Judith marries Bluebeard and enters his menacing castle, which harbors dark secrets. She thinks her devotion can save him from his agonizing loneliness, only to discover that by her ceaseless curiosity, she dooms them both. In more traditional stagings, Judith opens seven doors, each displaying in turn, Bluebeard’s bloodstained torture chamber, armory, treasury, garden, dukedom, lake, and finally the room his three former wives occupy in a kind of half-life.

"Bluebeard's Castle"
“Bluebeard’s Castle”

Kosky goes a different route, creating the contents of the doors out of various bodies inhabiting the stage. Judith pulls leaves out of Bluebeard’s suit jacket, symbolizing the garden; water pours out of the cuffs and coat of three actors perched mutely on stage (stand-ins for Bluebeard himself) symbolizing the lake of tears. All this takes place on a slowly revolving circular platform designed by Katrin Lea Tag, as Bluebeard and Judith bemoan the unfolding events. Kosky stays true to the character of the piece, succumbing to the tragic elements while interpreting the clash of husband and wife in his own terms. His duo is dressed in modern attire, beginning and ending their journey as a contemporary couple in turmoil, engaged in a Freudian battle of wills.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith
Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith

The flaw here, however, is that like Dido and Aeneas, Kosky abandons the noble, epic nature of his characters. Missing is the initial courtly restraint that lends pathos to Bluebeard’s solitude and the heroic to Judith’s mission to save him. Because Judith and Bluebeard seem frantically at odds from the moment we encounter them – two wounded and desperate animals – the drama has nowhere to go as the music builds to its inevitable climax. What we are left with is reduced to a domestic drama. Perhaps that is enough, but I longed for less Albee and more Shakespeare.

Bass-baritone, Robert Hayward, and soprano, Claudia Mahnke, embrace their roles as the tragic couple. Musically, they prove a compelling pair, illuminating Bartok’s short melodic phrases as the orchestra weaves its magic spell and thunders towards Bluebeard’s final secret.

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Photos by  Craig Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

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