OPERA ATELIER'S new production of Dido and Aeneas was a great success. The company’s former production of the work had been its calling card on tours throughout Europe and Asia. The new production presented the piece on its own, rather than as part of a double bill, with a sleeker yet still historically informed design. Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta gave a ravishing performance as Dido, and director Marshall Pynkoski’s rethinking of the work reinvigorated every aspect of the production, from the music to the acting and design.
Pynkoski’s greatest change was to add a twenty-five-minute-long prologue combining music, dance and spoken word. As he explained in his usual pre-performance speech, he wanted to give the audience the same background as the opera’s original audience would have had. After the sounds of drums, a wood block and a rattle reminiscent of Japanese Noh theater, actress Irene Poole declaimed with great feeling excerpts from Robert Fagles’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, explaining Juno’s enmity toward Aeneas, his being blown off course by Aeolus and Neptune, his shipwreck on the coast of Libya and his arrival in Carthage. While Poole initially spoke unaccompanied, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis eventually joined in playing excerpts of Purcell’s music for theater from various sources. Following Poole’s narration, the Atelier Ballet, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, depicted the shipwreck and arrival in Carthage, leading to a pantomime, by Giunta as Dido and Christopher Enns as Aeneas, of the couple’s first meeting and falling in love.
Of course, Purcell’s opera does not really need an explanatory prologue, but the quotations from the Aeneid, the selections from Purcell’s music and the initial ballet did establish the appropriate atmosphere for the opera and provided an introduction for any newcomers to Opera Atelier’s performance style. The difficulty in quoting the source of Nahum Tate’s libretto is that Tate contradicts his source by blaming the title couple’s travails not on Juno but on a local sorceress.
The extravagant women’s costumes by Dora Rust-D’Eye used in OA’s previous production were replaced by simpler gowns by Michael Legouffe, whose elegant lines still suggested fashions of the period. For the Sorceress’s attendant witches, however, period design was set aside in favor of modern unitards covered in streamers, representing flames.
The most important musical change was to replace the chorus of adults with the twenty-two-member Toronto Children’s Chorus Choral Scholars, aided by eight men from the Opera Atelier Chorus. The point was to nod toward the opera’s original production by a girls’ school in 1689. The sound produced was very like that of a fine English cathedral choir. The presence of children’s voices created an innocence appropriate to the work; it also lent more resonance to the libretto’s frequent mention of Cupid.
Purcell’s score has indications for seventeen dances, though he wrote down music for only three of them. Zingg and Fallis added two chaconnes to the body of the opera and a final minuet after Dido’s death, as Purcell indicated. This, along with encores of popular numbers, meant that the evening was equally balanced between song and dance.
Making her role debut as Dido, Giunta displayed a voice of extraordinary power and beauty. Her mezzo-soprano has both clarity and depth, and her exceptional control allowed her to color key words and phrases to achieve the greatest dramatic effect. She had completely mastered Opera Atelier’s stylized acting technique and made it seem a natural expression of emotion. Encouraged by Pynkoski’s reading of the Aeneid, Giunta’s account of “Ah! Belinda” did not portray Dido as somehow intimating Aeneas’s departure, as is commonly the case, but showed her oppressed by the weight of overwhelming love. Giunta’s moving account of “When I am laid in earth” was exquisite in its attention to detail and shading of tone.
Enns, who has also mastered Opera Atelier’s acting style, sang Aeneas in a light, agile tenor. His finest moment was his account of “But ah! what language can I try,” in which he fully conveyed Aeneas’s distress at having to announce his departure to Dido. Soprano Meghan Lindsay provided elegantly phrased support as Dido’s sister Belinda, and mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell sang the Sorceress in a voluptuous tone spiced with a wry sense of humor.
David Fallis conducted the eighteen-member Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in a stirring, vivid account of the score that made it sound fresh. Pynkoski and Zingg achieved their ideal of fully integrating dance with opera, helped by the dancer-like figures and physical agility of both Giunta and Enns, who easily blended in as occasional dancers with the corps de ballet. One left the opera feeling elated, as if one had encountered a deserving old friend revitalized by good fortune. —Christopher Hoile