Dido and Aeneas
New York Lyric Opera’s March 21 concert performance of Dido and Aeneas provided musical pleasure well beyond expectations. The organization offers emerging artists opportunities to tackle big assignments in somewhat makeshift circumstances: you couldn’t help but anticipate that this Dido would seem like just one more item off the assembly line. Instead, it was a fully convincing presentation of Purcell’s masterpiece, its quality a tribute to the high level of talent assembled and the executive capabilities of conductor Jorge Parodi.
While New York Lyric Opera typically uses piano reductions, for this Dido, the organization summoned a seven-piece Baroque band (eight, including Parodi on harpsichord), to happy effect. Some scrappiness in the playing betrayed limited preparation time, but Parodi still was able to marshall his forces and sustain a vibrant musical continuity, with the dance numbers particularly infectious. In concerted numbers, the work of the fifteen singers, choristers and soloists alike, was scrupulously alert, making them very much a part of the ensemble.
Dido is an opera that lends itself readily to a young cast: its only known performance during Purcell’s lifetime was at a girl’s boarding school. The singers here may have been past boarding-school age, but only just, and they seized their opportunities with winning enthusiasm. Dido was Fleur Barron: a slender, striking-looking young woman with an intriguingly dark and complex mezzo-soprano. My one cavil with her performance was that she did not always deliver the text with absolute clarity — a shortcoming, it must be said, that she shared with most of her colleagues. Abetted by her conductor, she took “When I am laid in earth” at rather a brisk clip: a tactic that may have blunted the aria’s tragic impact, but brought its structural logic to the fore. I would be interested to hear this promising singer essay the role again in five years’ time, and find what further depths she might bring to it.
Theo Hoffman, the Aeneas, sang with persuasive commitment and displayed a roaring baritone that seemed like it should have emerged from a body much beefier than his compact frame. Countertenor Ray Chenez sang the Witch with commanding vigor; the trace of hamminess in his gestures and facial expressions was perhaps an inevitable in an agreeable-looking young man presenting himself as a wicked old woman. Marie Marquis’s bright, perpetual smile wasn’t always appropriate to Belinda’s utterances—she wore it even as Aeneas took his leave—but it bespoke the abundant energy she brought to her singing, and the voice itself vibrated with youthful excitement. Tenor Sean Christensen’s spirited reading turned the Sailor’s brief chanty into a true high point, embodying the spry high spirits that pervaded this Dido.