Cher Public


The theatrical expression “You can’t tell the players without a program” was never more apt than when applied to Opus Arte’s release of Cavalli’s La Didone, likely the first operatic adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  This DVD of the 1641 opera from Theatre de Caen (production 2011) features conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, who apparently thought there would be wide interest in this confusing, repetitive, rather numbing baroque rarity.

The first problem is, indeed, the program.  We are given a very thin and uninformative essay by Reiner Moritz, and most of the characters are double, triple, or quadruple-cast so, unless somebody identifies a character by name, there is a real problem in figuring out whom each new character actually is.  

For instance, singer Tehila Nini Goldstein is listed as “Creusa, Giunone, Damigella II, and Dama II.”  But there is not very much costume difference, so the audience is left wondering which character she is playing and when.  This might have been aided had there been a libretto included or at least a track listing telling us which character was singing.  No such luck, alas.

The first act (in the ruins of Troy) is musically repetitive and dramatically inert.  The entire act is spent with various arias of lamentation that all sound virtually the same and are composed in the same musical style.  Men die, women lament.  A Greek soldier, whom I still can’t identify, pops in occasionally to grab and murder somebody.  There is a tiresome debate in Enea’s family about whether to stay and fight or flee to start anew.  This, too, sounds like a lament.  It is certainly lamentable.

Things begin to improve when we move to Didone’s Carthage.  Anna Bonitatibus sings the title role with considerable resources; hers is the singular performance that combines fine, nuanced singing with dramatic intensity that elevates the music to some real moments of drama.  She manages to imbue the character with a palpable sense of longing in her doomed love for Enea.

There is a distracting subplot involving an African king (Iarba) who desperately loves Didone, then goes mad when she rebuffs him, then finally is instantly made sane (à la the Puritani Elvira) when she accepts him in the end.

Tenor Kresimir Spicer sings Enea with ease and beauty, but never manages to embody the character’s heroic qualities; he can’t seem to strike a romantic spark either with Creusa or Didone.  Countertenor Terry Wey twitters annoyingly as Ascanio, Amore, and Cacciatore without making the slightest differentiation in character.  Another countertenor, Xavier Sabata is effective in the thanklessly two-dimensional character of Iarba.

Only Bonitatibus brings any distinction to the singing, though most everyone is at least adequate.  But to bring this music to life, there needs to be more passion, more urgency, more “stakes.”  Director Clement Hervieu-Leger’s production provides none of the above.

Les Arts Florissants plays charmingly under Christie, but the score provides little of uniqueness or interest, unless one favors endless secco recitative.  And to top it all off, my computer’s spellcheck insists that I change “Enea” to “enema.” You just can’t win!

  • louannd

    Thank you Dan. I tried to watch this on line awhile back and never could finish the thing because I knew I needed a libretto which I didn’t have time to acquire. Now that I know it doesn’t come with one, I’ll skip buying it.

    • louannd

      I could’ve sworn that review said Dan Johnson though I didn’t think it was his usual writing. Thank you, Henson Keys.

    • La Cieca’s editing mistake: this review is 100% Henson.

  • Camille

    It did say Dan Johnson, louannd, as I was just marvelling at his sudden return. You are right, it didn’t sound like him.

    Ms. Goldstein was mentioned in a thread sometime in the last year—I do believe she sang “Lascia ch’io pianga”, and had a lovely voice. A friend of Cerquetti/Farrell’s? Or was it Monty Nostry that mentioned her.

    Sorry to hear that Didone è abbandonata e tradita.

  • Perles75

    I actually don’t agree with the present review at all. I’m not a great fan of XVII century opera (and I believe it’s worse for people who don’t speak italian), but I saw this show live in Paris and I was pretty impressed.

    The setting is not particularly original or animated but tasteful in its simplicity. The Troy act is suitably dark and makes a nice contrast with the sunny Carthage.
    As all the operas of that period, that cannot count on great virtuoso arias to please the public, a good characterization of the characters by the singers, in the acting and in the delivery of the text (which was the main concern of the composers at the time), is a prime requirement. And here more or less everyone makes a good job, starting from the Didone of Bonitatibus. Soicer has the right aplomb for Enea. Sabata, whose voice I personally don’t like too much, makes a good job in his “mad” scenes which have the purpose of lighten up the drama. The other minor characters maintain a good average level.
    Christie and his orchestra play with the usual excellence.

    In conclusion, it’s not a DVD that I would recommend to people who are not keen on operas of the second half of 1600 (knowledge of Italian, as for Monteverdi, is a big plus), but it’s a welcome addition for those who want to explore this repertoire.

    I would like to add that a person that equates the recitar cantando to an “endless secco recitative” is perhaps not the best suited to review a XVII century opera.

    By the way, for those who are interested in the libretto,

    • oedipe


      I agree with most of what you say (I’ll add my 2pence later, if I have the time). But, you say you are not a fan of 17th century opera and, if my memory is correct, you once said you are not a fan of French grand opera. Just out of curiosity: what type of opera do you like?

  • grimoaldo

    “Sung in Italian with English, French and German subtitles”, it says on the back of the box.

    “the score provides little of uniqueness or interest, unless one favors endless secco recitative.”

    Disagree. Of course not everyone may enjoy this style, but I find the mix of declamation, recitative and melody eloquent, rich and beautiful.

    Final scene, Dido has a suicide monologue, stabs herself, the opera could end here but convention of the time did not permit tragic endings so the wound is not fatal and she is saved by Iarbus, who marries her, brief duet (with French subtitles and the marvellous performance of Anna Bonitatibus):

  • oedipe

    It is true that in the case of 17th century opera -much more so than in, say, bel canto- it is important to have access to the libretto in order to fully appreciate a work. Without being the greatest opera ever written, La Didone -the combination of the music with the text- presents plenty of beautiful lyrical and dramatic moments.

    I have seen this production on Arte, with French subtitles, and I found it quite convincing. It is a relatively low budget production, created by a young director, but it is effective and doesn’t look bad at all. IMO, it actually looks better than some of the multimillion productions we have been seeing on the Met stage or elsewhere. The interpreters are also young and unknown, with the exception of Bonitatibus. I thought the singing and acting were of pretty good quality overall.

    Now, a little bit of background about the whole endeavor. The Caen Opera is William Christie’s (subsidized) opera company. Having his own company, he now has the opportunity to stage obscure (and less obscure) baroque works and to employ young musicians, singers, and stage directors in the process. The company doesn’t have a big budget, so they have to produce on the cheap.

    No, I don’t believe the DVD will be a bestseller, but ANY sales would help awareness of the company and of La Didone. And frankly, I would be surprised if Christie expected wide interest in this “confusing, repetitive, rather numbing baroque rarity”, especially in the US.