Review: ‘Dido and Aeneas’

Capitol Opera Richmond
May 31, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church

The doomed love affair of Dido and Aeneas, a tale told in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” inspired the creation of the first real opera in the English language, written in 1688 by Henry Purcell. It was a very good start: No composer has set English words to music more masterfully, and few in the baroque period conveyed emotion in music more genuinely or with such nuance.

Capitol Opera Richmond’s new staging of “Dido and Aeneas” does Purcell’s score and style more justice than might be expected, given that many in the production are treading on unfamiliar musical and dramatic terrain.

Baroque opera is quite different from music drama of later centuries. Its vocal style is decorous, at times more like oration than song, and its singers’ movements are as stylized and choreographed as those of its dancers. In many operas of the period, certainly this one, the chorus is a collective actor and often a participant in dance sequences.

Purcell also infused his score with folk song and dance, challenging performers to shift from stylized theatrics to rustic high jinks.

This production’s stage director, Chelsea Burke, and its choreographer, Ana Ines King, manage the multiple demands of this music drama effectively, at times ingeniously, blending singing and dance seamlessly, extending the performance space throughout the church sanctuary, and using lighting to fine atmospheric effect, all without upstaging the principal singers.

Those singers – Gabrielle Maes (Dido), Tracey Welborn (Aeneas), Anne O’Byrne (Belinda) and Ingrid Young (the Sorceress) – as well as several in secondary roles, notably Victoria Kenney and Sarah Wells (the witches), deliver dramatically compelling portrayals as they cope variably with the vocal demands of baroque style. O’Byrne is audibly conversant in that style; the others are at differing stages of mastering it.

The big moments of the opera – the biggest being the lament of the dying Dido, sung quite affectingly by Maes – come across with the needed impact.

For production value, though, the highlights of the show are the dances, especially the performances of Latin Ballet of Virginia principals Marisol Cristina Betancourt Sotolongo and DeShon Niajhi Rolins in a demonically writhing “Echo Dance of the Furies” and a proto-flamenco dance in the “Guitar Chacony.” The company’s Junior Dancers bring an angelic touch to the “Drooping Wings” choral finale.

The instrumental forces – the Jefferson Baroque consort, conducted by Gustav Highstein, with harpsichordist Daniel Stipe accompanying the arias – enhance the period musical style of the production, although the strings are prone to go out of tune. Central Virginia humidity is not a gut-strung fiddle’s friend.

“Dido and Aeneas” will be repeated at 8 p.m. June 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Patterson and Forest avenues. Tickets: $30 Details: (804) 840-7878; http://www.capitoloperarichmond.

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