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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Opera Review: The Queen of Underland

Dido and Aeneas are laid in earth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The nocturnal court of Carthage: Dido (Danela Mack) flanked by her handmaidens.
Photo by Kevin Condon for The Death of Classical.
When it comes to performing operas in innovative locations, it is hard to beat the catacombs deep within Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. Last night, before a packed house, The Angels' Share offered the premiere of its season-opening staging of Dido and Aeneas. Written by Henry Purcell in 1688, this is the oldest English-language opera to have a place in the repertory.

A performance at The Angel's Share is a theatrical event even before one gets to the venue. The catacombs are set deep within the vastness of Greenwood, and the road to them is steep, winding up the bony glacial ridge at this end of Brooklyn that once was a Revolutionary War battlefield. Now it's the resting place of the famous, the elite and New York's middle class, a deep and silent preserve of the unliving. There's also a whiskey tasting beforehand, giving strength for the journey and adding to the sense of occasion.

The small five-piece baroque ensemble was located all the way at the back of the long, arched tunnel. A simple platform stage stood at about the middle of the catacomb, and the actors made their entrances and exits from the low doorways where the crypts are stored. House lights were a string of big incandescent bulbs suspended along the ceiling, and stage lighting (by Tláloc López-Watermann) was done mostly using small, versatile LED units. LED strips on the floor added to the available visual effect.

We sat, two by two with lower seats in the front and higher stools in the back. Sometimes it was possible to have line-of-sight to the stage but in this opera, with its slow pace, sense of ceremony and largely static action, it was the sound that was important. And what a sound it was, immersing, engulfing, sometimes completely overwhelming as it resonated, cleanly and clearly against the curved earthen vault above our heads.

On the small stage, the drama unfurled. Dido (Danela Mack) sang with a dark, powerful voice, conveying the Carthaginian queen's arc from royal monarch in full pomp and circumstance flanked by her handmaidens Belinda (Molly Quinn) and Anna (Brooke Larimer) She spent the first part of the opera fighting off the unwelcome attentions of King Iarbas (Paul Greene-Dennis) and fending off Aeneas too. Simple, magnificent costumes by Fay Eva added to the splendor of the limited visuals, possibly the richest finery ever worn here in the city of the dead.

Aeneas is the lesser role here but baritone Paul La Rosa gave the intrepid Trojan prince plenty of presence and vocal weight. His performance was only hampered by the fact that he is, throughout this work a secondary figure to Dido. It was only after a great and complex courtship that Ms. Mack made the transition to a woman in love, only to have her heart broken when Aeneas follows his destiny. In her final lament "When I am laid in earth," Ms. Mack sang with careful, rich deliberation, putting weight in each syllable of the text and providing power and presence as the Queen slowly expired.

The star-crossed pair were surrounded by a good supporting cast. Mr. Greene is a find, a powerful bass with presence and a resonant voice. Soprano Vanessa Cariddi made the Sorceress a terrifying figure, flanked by demonic handmaidens of her own and capering in the hellish electronic light. Conducting from the keyboard, Eliott Figg led a taut and supple account of the score, flanked by a quintet of period strings. This smart and stylish performance was a good start to The Angel's Share's second season, and one left looking forward to the next opportunity to delve deep into music beneath the earth.

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