Saturday, June 9, 2018

A richly imaginative production of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" at the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv



Photo: Yossi Zwecker




The Israeli Opera’s recent performances of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” brought together several Israeli artists and ensembles: Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Opera Chorus and soloists performed under the musical direction of Ethan Schmeisser. Stage director team Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek, who directed, and designed the sets and costumes of “Dido and Aeneas” for the Opera de Rouen’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, brought their creative production to Tel Aviv. This writer attended the performance at the New Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, on June 3rd 2018. The all-Israeli line-up of vocal soloists (in this specific performance) comprised Anat Czarny-Dido, Oded Reich-Aeneas, Daniela Skorka-Belinda, Guy Mannheim-sorceress/ sailor, Moran Abouloff-Pick-2nd woman, Tali Ketzef & Nitzan Alon-enchantresses and Yaniv d’Or-spirit.

 

From its modest beginnings as a work composed for a girls’ boarding school run by Josias Priest in Chelsea, a work calling for a limited number of soloists, chorus and a few dancers (Josias Priest was the dancing master) “Dido and Aeneas laid the foundations for English opera and is today ranked among the most popular British lyrical works. However, due to the fact that the work’s dating is uncertain and that the original manuscript is lost, many questions regarding the work remain unanswered.  As to its librettist Nahum Tate, a negligible poet, Purcell kept only a part of his text, this taken from Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”. With its astonishing economy of resources, one might refer to the work as a chamber opera, given its extreme brevity of three short acts, but it is the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas in itself that inspired Purcell to write a work of strong emotions, offering the full range of dramatically intense feelings, those juxtaposing the conflict between duty and passion and resulting in the separation of the two lovers. The Queen of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas, transcends her suffering by the beauty of her singing, before greeting the death she cannot escape after the hero leaves.

 

A number of features combined to make the Israeli Opera production of “Dido and Aeneas” enchanting. Possibly out of sight down in the orchestra pit but certainly not out of earshot were members of Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, whose delicate, polished playing on period instruments from the very opening sounds of the French-, Lully-style overture (they later engaged in some Baroque-style improvising) imbued the performance with an aura of delicacy, elegance and authenticity.  Placed behind the instrumentalists were singers of the Israeli Opera Chorus. Their crucial contribution to the opera, participating in the denouement of the action, taking on multiple roles - of cupids, courtiers, huntsmen and witches - was carried out with splendid articulacy, timbral beauty and stylistic competence.

 

As to the soloists, here was a production rich in home-grown talent. Mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny gave a sensitive and convincing portrayal of the ill-fated Dido alongside baritone Oded Reich’s compelling, bold and tender handling of the role of Aeneas. Soprano Daniela Skorka was well cast as Dido’s sympathetic handmaid Belinda. A whimsical touch was the portrayal of the sorcerer as a giant octopus seated atop a craggy rock at sea, the part appropriately assigned to tenor Guy Mannheim. Then there were the enchantresses Tali Ketzef and Nitzan Alon, here in the guise of mermaids, descending from the ceiling on flying rigs. Intermittently, the stage was alive with dainty, young, Elizabethan-style female dancers and some wonderful acrobats, the latter at times portraying dark, slimy sea creatures; then in Act III, we see the same artists scampering up and down the ropes of Aeneas’ ship like the best of sailors. And then there was sylph-like acrobat Aya Dayan, suspended on a ring high above the stage, defying gravity and charming the audience with her repertoire of delicate dance movements.  With their background of mime, drama, acrobatics, dance and illusion, Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek present staging that is imaginative and magical, with its seascapes of a myriad of blues, of waters inhabited by mermaids, the mauve shell serving as a safe refuge for the lovers in better times, as well as several humorous effects. And, finally, following Czarny’s poignant, finely crafted and richly ornamented rendition of Dido’s Lament, the stage is plunged into darkness and candles are extinguished one by one, depicting the Queen of Carthage’s tragic end. All that remains is for the chorus to request the "cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart”.

 

Kudos to the producers, to Maestro Ethan Schmeisser and to the many, many artists and opera team members whose performance presented a fine balance between drama, fantasy and Henry Purcell’s sublime music.




Photo: Yossi Zwecker

 
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