Chorale's 'Aeneas' Sustains A High Note

Opera Review

April 19, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In the Annapolis Chorale's April 4 production of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, there was little evidence of the cost-cutting announced earlier by music director J. Ernest Green. Because of its lower production costs, Dido and Aeneas replaced the previously scheduled J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Maintaining a high artistic level to assure superior musical and dramatic quality, Green introduced his audience to a largely unfamiliar 17th century 1-hour opera sung in English that demands much from the leads, featured soloists and choristers and requires innovative staging to make the church setting irrelevant.

Based on Virgil's Aenead, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas uses a libretto by Nahum Tate to tell in English the story of Carthage Queen Dido and Trojan Prince Aenead, who was shipwrecked with his crew in Carthage and fell in love with Dido.

Green called this "one of the first English operas" and noted that the royal couple whose marriage is celebrated may be likened to William and Mary who reigned during Purcell's lifetime, mentioning William and Mary's ties to St. Anne's Church. In this opera, Dido considers marrying Aeneas based on her attraction to him and that it would be politically advantageous to unite Carthage and Troy. The couple went on a picnic, and a Sorceress disguised as Mercury told Aeneas he must leave to found Rome. Although no sorceress exists in Virgil's Aenead, a sorceress and witches are used here as spirits who mislead Aeneas into following what he believes to be a decree of the gods. When Aeneas tells Dido that he must leave her, she is inconsolable, sings her famous "Lament," and plans to die.

Surprisingly modern, the Overture contains a restless energetic quality unlike what we might expect in a classical work created at the dawn of the Baroque era. Rather than offering a sterile, dry presentation often associated with early music, the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra summoned an engaging vitality to get the performance off to a lively start. Throughout the hourlong work, the musicians created coloration and drama while consistently supporting the singers.

At the end of the Overture, the scene became Queen Dido's palace in Carthage, where the emphasis was on the drama of the queen deciding whether she should marry Aeneas. Using a majestic-like presence, Fatinah Tilfah was able to summon a wide variety of emotions, becoming alternately passionate and plaintive, musically conveying the plight of a tragic Greek heroine.

Dido's sister and lady-in-waiting, Belinda, was portrayed by soprano Natalie Conte, who advised Dido to marry Aeneas. Third to join this soprano trio was Jill Woodward, who as Second Woman agreed with Belinda that Dido should marry Aeneas.

Bringing a full, joyous sound, the Annapolis Chorale Chamber Chorus joined in to support the impending royal marriage. These choristers define what an opera chorus should be. Enhancing their sound was Green's placement of the singers with the male chorus below the altar flanking the orchestra on left and right and with the female chorus members lined across the altar to provide wide stereophonic sound that raised the emotional intensity for the entrance of Aeneas, portrayed by baritone Shouvik Mondle.

When Mondle's Aeneas mounted the altar to confront Tilfah's Dido, the scene became both flirtatious and emotionally charged as the two circled each other in a kind of classic courtship dance. Mondle's sonorous baritone filled the church with a wondrous sound, as Tilfah's voice rose to match his in expressiveness, beauty and power.

Adrienne Webster brought strong drama to the Sorceress role, and she enunciated so well that her every word could be easily understood. Always reliable artist Carolene Winter, who has graced many Annapolis Chorale productions, sang the roles of a First Witch/Enchantress and of the Spirit Mercury. Sharon Potts sang Second Witch/Enchantress. Tenor Tom Magette sang First Sailor.

Dido and Aeneas was preceded by organist Larry Molinaro and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra in George Frideric Handel's "Organ Concerto in F Major," a bright, cheerful excursion into the intricacies of high baroque in which Molinaro executed difficult passages with graceful agility while the orchestra provided sprightly accompaniment.

This program ended the season on a high note, and Green promised more innovations in programming for the 2009-10 season, which will be announced soon.

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