After seven years, the adventurous American Opera Theater is wrapping things up this season. There's a tentative plan to stage Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" in collaboration with the Baltimore School for the Arts in the spring, but the company would be exiting true to form if the current double bill at the Theatre Project turns out to be the swan song.
Founding artistic director Timothy Nelson has shown a knack for stretching the envelope in a variety of ways. For this double bill, a co-production with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory, Nelson has paired a baroque gem from 1689, Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," with a new work by Melissa Dunphy called "The Gonzales Cantata."
The curiosity value of the latter, promoted last year on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," probably accounts for the fact that AOT added an extra performance this weekend to meet demand. As it happens, though, the Purcell opera is really the main reason to catch the production.
Dunphy's satirical creation, based on congressional testimony by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, doesn't quite live up to expectations. The cantata is a lot more interesting in concept than delivery.
The text finds senators, including our own Ben Cardin, grilling Gonzales over the controversial firings of Justice Department personnel. The attorney general's famous inability to recollect anything becomes the basis of an extended aria that provides the major musical moment of the score.
Dunphy essentially imitates 18th-century oratorio idioms to fuel that score, but without rising to the clever and humorous level of, say, Peter Schickele, when he composes under the guise of the fictional P.D.Q. Bach. Dunphy writes vocal melodies mostly in period style, but tosses a lot of dissonance into the orchestration, as if to make sure everyone knows this is a contemporary piece. The result, musically, isn't one thing or another, and none of it very persuasive.
In an oddly effective touch, Dunphy gives the role of Gonzales and all of the male senators to female soloists, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein is written for a male to sing. That gender-bending gets underlined in Nelson's barebones, overly cutesy staging of the cantata, with Brady DelVecchio done up in drag and hamming it up nicely as Feinstein.
Molly Young, as Gonzales, could use more vocal weight, but she delivers the "I Don't Recall" aria with a certain flair. Elizabeth Merrill as Sen. Patrick Leahy and Julie Bosworth as Cardin prove especially vivid. Melinda O'Neal conducts the Ignoti Dei Orchestra of baroque period instruments.
In "Dido," Nelson gets carried away using chairs as props, a device that starts to look mannered or silly (or both), rather than illuminating. Still, he focuses strongly enough on the central, very human tragedy in this brief, masterful opera about love and treachery in post-Trojan War Carthage. The director's use of subdued lighting is telling throughout in this modern-dress production; the final, slow fade-to-black registers strongly.
Emily Noel offers tonal warmth and highly expressive phrasing as Dido. Merrill does vibrant work as Belinda. Jason Buckwalter sings sensitively as Aeneas. The crucial choral part in the opera is handsomely fulfilled by the Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir of Baltimore with polished blend, articulation and phrasing.
O'Neal shapes the score beautifully, with an ear for dynamic nuance, and draws subtle playing from the instrumental ensemble. The remarkable eloquence of Purcell's score can be savored at nearly every turn, and that's reason enough to catch this unusual double bill.
If you go
"The Gonzales Cantata" and "Dido and Aeneas" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $20-$30. Call 410-752-8558 or go to missiontix.com.