One only shudders to think what Baz Luhrmann would have done with Thursday’s magnificent performance of “Dido and Aeneas.” Dido might very well have burst into Roxette’s “It must have been love.”
Mercifully, Michael Lewanski ’01 (conductor) and Paul Koch ’01 (director) have no trace of Luhrmann’s posturing postmodernism.
Their “Dido and Aeneas” runs twice, one performance directly following the other. The libretto and music remain the same, but a change of staging radically recontextualizes Purcell’s opera. Yet this dramatic strategy has not one ounce of pretension or self-consciousness.
Instead, it is an opportunity to explore the many faces of this tragic tale. In the first version, Dido is a cold, passionless ruler. What she has in power, she lacks in heat. Her lover abandons her; she tries to kill herself. In the second, Dido is fierce, awake.
One must mediate between the spaces of these two texts to find the drama — either version alone would lack pathos.
Lewanski and Koch achieve this: a tepid female character in an opera written by a man is given the opportunity to defend herself against history. Dido is privileged to articulate her own authenticity before her lover and the world.
Kimberly DeQuattro ’03 brings a rich velvety voice and elegant, naturalistic acting style to the demanding role of Dido. Even her breaths resonate with dramatic energy; hers is truly a sumptuous, mature performance. This is the next generation of opera — singers whose acting is as accomplished as their extraordinary vocal talent.
An emotionally ardent and nuanced performance by David Weaver ’02 (the second Aeneas) pairs perfectly against a refined, formal first Aeneas (Christopher Herbert ’02). When Herbert kisses Dido, in keeping with the feel of the lukewarm affair, his eyes are open. In a parallel moment in the second version, Weaver’s lids are gently closed. The passion of the performances here are made that much more beautiful because they are made of little gestures like these.
The singing is consistently expressive and the earthy, Martha Graham-esque dancing vividly accomplished by Lorena Loew ’05, Pamela Duque ’05, Josie Macmurdo ’02, and Sophia Emigh ’05.
Death is everywhere eroticism. Or rather, eroticism is everywhere death. From the still life tableaus (nature mort) in which the actors are frequently placed to the suggestion of Dido and Aeneas’ union (le petit mort), the connection between art, erotics, death and love is increasingly exposed as the complex web it is.
There is an interesting ideology at work in this production. Evil is a woman. Evil is a strident, aggressive sorceress (the very sultry Grace Kuckro ’03). Her wicked deeds are carried out by two pinstriped female bureaucrats and an emaciated, submissive elf who looks like Puck ravaged by heroin.
But if evil is erotic and earthy, if it is matriarchal and feminine, it is also always liberating. Dido’s regal sexuality is Puritan and banal. She does not deserve to die at the end of the first version because she has never truly lived.
Dido becomes a full subject through an awareness of her own interpolation. Her paranoid, alienated awareness is the key to her freedom. Our poor queen is made to act in a performance of her own life in which she knows too well the ending. She is made the reluctant spectator to her own story.
In the second version, Dido meets the sorceress as an equal; her repressed sexuality from the first version erupts as the Other woman. It is fitting that the chorus is banished to risers behind the stage for the second version — this story does not occur in the public sphere, it is a most private terrain Dido navigates.
The final plea of our heroine “Remember me, but forget my fate” is the request of a subject whose existence exceeds the story. Her full engagement with sensual, visceral, Dionysian being is here on display in the most profound and beautiful performance to grace Yale in a long, long time.