Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" staged at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance

Imagine Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” set in a dilapidated psychiatric hospital. Dido is one of the inmates and Aeneas is a young psychiatrist. A far cry from the more conventional staging of Henry Purcell’s 1688/9 opera in three acts to a libretto of Nahum Tate (first performed at Josias Priest’s Girls’ School in London), stage director Danny Ehrlich pointed the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s student production in a totally new direction. (Ehrlich is not alone in creating new settings for the opera that has its origins in Greco-Roman mythology: at the 2013 Bath Music Festival an eventually unhinged Dido strips before her final heartbreaking aria and at the Sydney Festival of January 2014, “Dido” was performed in a giant water tank.) So, with the text and truly marvelous music intact, the audience attending the JAMD production was required to shed any conservative ideas of Dido as queen of Carthage dying for the love of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, sent away from her by evil trickery, and to witness the proceedings as taking place in a psychiatric hospital, with Dido committing suicide there. The witches are now strict nuns working at the hospital, well played and effectively dressed with large white cornettes (headdresses) What struck a very different note here from the Dido we have known as remote and separate on a sparse stage was the sense of community of the patients (choir), a group of people constantly together, active, moving, entering, leaving, interacting and dancing, and all of these actions also taking place during the playing of instrumental pieces.

There were four performances, using two casts, each performance conducted by a different student. This writer attended a performance on February 19th, in which Yael Plotniarz conducted. David Shemer was musical director of the production. What is obvious is that the JAMD boasts many fine singers, with these young artists already showing confidence and stage experience. Efrat Wolfson dealt admirably with the role of Dido, as did Lucy Bloch as Belinda. The hall’s acoustic was not encouraging to Ron Silberstein’s (Aeneas) light, very pleasant tenor voice. Tenor Hillel Sherman gave a hearty rendition of the sailor’s aria. Mezzo soprano Rivka Bartlet-Falk displayed impressive vocal ability and color. The instrumental ensemble was indeed competent, its intonation occasionally lacking in accuracy. Stage effects were achieved by changes of lighting and Hebrew surtitles (Mira Zakai, Danny Ehrlich) were provided. No mainstream performance, it was actually a play within a play: the inmates of the hospital were putting on the performance, one presenting love and heartbreak, and with a sense of urgency. The audience was left to decide where to draw the line between performance and reality.

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