Cher Public

Give my regards to Carthage

DIdo O'HaraWhen MasterVoices announced that it would be doing a semi-staging of Dido and Aeneas starring Broadway divas and frequent collaborators Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark, it seemed a screwy idea at best. However, Thursday’s premiere at City Center turned out to be an occasionally bumpy, surprisingly touching presentation of Purcell’s masterpiece made special by O’Hara’s beautifully restrained and glowingly sung queen of Carthage. 

After the death of its conductor Robert Bass in 2008, the Collegiate Chorale struggled to find its way and last year changed its name to MasterVoices with a mandate to present opera and operetta in English at City Center under its music director Ted Sperling. Deborah Voigt starred as Ruth in its initial show, last fall’s The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan.

An intriguing companion piece to Strauss’s Elektra currently playing at the Met, Purcell’s brief 1689 work tells of yet another disaster resulting from the Trojan War, and it would prove an even bigger challenge for this newly reconfigured group. As Dido lasts just 50 minutes, MasterVoices commissioned The Daughters of Necessity, a new prologue from noted Broadway composer Michael John LaChuisa.

Unfortunately LaChiusa’s 20-minute trifle depicting the three fates debating Dido’s destiny proved an arid appetizer to be endured than savored. Set to the composer’s own labored doggerel, it opened with a convincingly baroque-ish prelude but soon MasterVoices’s 80 members were discussing Dido’s fate in a raucous chorus full of broad topical references including the inevitable Donald Trump slam.

Dressed in drab work uniforms, Clark, Anna Christy and Sarah Mesko as Marta, Decima and Nona entered and began debating love’s destructive toll, particularly in the case of Dido’s short sad life. However, that discussion was soon overshadowed by Clark’s shtick of scissoring off bits of the enormous ball of red yarn which represented human life spans.

Each snip occasioned a member of the chorus (really one of the evening’s dancers) to fall dead to the floor in an elaborate pratfall which brought forth gales of laughter from the gala audience. However, it had grown painfully unfunny by the third iteration.

Although it must have been necessary to supplement the Purcell to fill out the evening, who could have possibly thought this low not-ready-for-Broadway sketch would be an appropriate curtain-raiser for one of opera’s most elegantly touching works? It was intensely jarring when just moments after the curtain came down on the brash LaChiusa that Sperling launched into Dido’s delicate and hypnotic overture.

His tempi for the 20-member Orchestra of St. Luke’s throughout the Purcell were generally apt but revealed no particular feel for the niceties of 17th century music. He also made some odd decisions throughout about repeats and instrumentation and I have definitely heard OSL play baroque music more idiomatically on many occasions.

DIdo ClarkFor a presentation by a chorus—which sat in four rows of bleachers toward the back of the stage, it was alarming that MasterVoices’s singing was so unsubtle and ineffective. Its oversized forces were unable to fine down their sound for Purcell’s subtly delicious music. The heartbreaking “With drooping wings” after the heroine’s crushing lament was particularly harsh and wobbly; how one longed instead for a Dido with just ten or twelve for that number.

Of the three “real” opera singers in the cast, Christy was a delightful Belinda, singing with limpid clarity and tossing in a few apt ornaments. The dark mezzo of Mesko made an appealing contrast to Christy’s piquant soprano in their frequent duets but occasionally Mesko sounded covered and strained at the top, especially in the haunting “Oft she visits.” Handsome baritone Elliot Madore made a particularly amorous Aeneas who could barely keep his hands off his beauteous Dido. Unfortunately he struggled with the vocal amplification (though tastefully and modestly done) sounding muffled and cautious.

Clark’s lean and decidedly un-operatic mezzo revealed the evening’s primary vocal weakness, but she offered a sizzlingly flamboyant portrayal of the Sorceress whose vendetta against Dido stems from pure malevolence. Doug Varone who both directed and choreographed the evening used Clark’s admirable plastique incorporating her into several dance numbers in which she and her dark followers celebrated their evil-doings with élan. She also got to model two of Christian Siriano’s most eye-catching gowns—a riot of black feathers followed by a sleek number of flaming crimson.

Eight lithe members of Doug Varone and Dancers unobtrusively moved about the simple elements of David Korins’s production design—several chairs and a large table on wheels—while ably impersonating both Dido’s and the Sorceress’s followers. Except for some over-the-top snarling and goofy “wicked” gesturing for the chorus, Varone’s production told the story simply but effectively which was particularly helpful as there were no surtitles. However, the soloists’s diction throughout was so extraordinarily clear that one rarely lost a word of Nahum Tate’s eloquent text.

Whereas one had to make some allowances for Clark’s vocal shortcomings, none were needed for O’Hara who may at first have seemed an unexpected choice for Dido. Although the role has been sung by sopranos as disparate as Kirsten Flagstad and Emma Kirkby, Dido—with its low-ish tessitura and slow, mournful music—is most often taken these days by a mezzo. But O’Hara immediately made it sound completely right, always in command from secure glowing high notes to a warm and luminous middle.

Looking ravishing in pale lavender, O’Hara began her first great number facing away from the audience preoccupied by her paralyzing sadness. The sheer candor of her singing was gripping, and one gasped as she melted at Aeneas’s reckless ardor. After the fetching aqua gown for her brief happy moment in the second act, she arrived to dismiss the fickle Trojan clad all in black, stoic with heroic resignation. Although the poignant isolation of her suicide was somewhat diluted by Varone’s danced conclusion which encircled Dido with eight followers, O’Hara entered effortlessly into that wrenching dance achieving a moving apotheosis.

While Broadway is lucky to have such an accomplished singer as one of its premiere stars, Dido and last season’s Valencienne in Lehar’s The Merry Widow at the Met suggest that O’Hara should keep exploring opera—one hopes that MasterVoices might have something in store for her in future seasons. In the meantime, in October the group will present the New York premiere of 27, Ricky Ian Gordon’s recent opera about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas starring Stephanie Blythe and Heidi Stober.

Photos by Erin Baiano

  • FragendeFrau82

    So sorry this was two nights only. I was hoping to maybe toss my Otello ticket next Friday when I’m in NYC for Elektra and see this instead.

    Oh well, there’s always the Hamilton lottery… ;-)

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    I was also there last night. O’Hara was indeed superb. I’ve never been a Purcell fan and have sat through some wan performances of DIDO AND AENEAS, but last night won me over. Sperling is one of the best Broadway conductors. He is clearly trying to bring a wider audience to opera and operetta through the Master Voices, which seems to be the operatic counterpart to the Encores series. It wasn’t an authentic reading in any sense, but it worked in a large space like the City Center. I thought the weakest link was Madore. Handsome, but the voice sounded trapped in his throat.
    In an interview in the Playbill, O’Hara says that she has embraced the fact that she is first and foremost a singer. She seems to be signaling that opera will play a more important role in her future. She sang Renee Fleming off the stage in MERRY WIDOW. Her performance as Dido was beautifully sung and intensely acted.
    The less said about LaChiusa’s effort the better. Hasn’t he realized that Donald Trump is too dangerous to be funny?

    • la vociaccia

      I thought Sperling’s conducting in THE KING AND I was dreadful; rushed, shallow and completely without sweep or grandeur. He and Bartlett Sher actually make a great pair, in that sense.

      • Signor Bruschino

        I completely agree- dreadful conducting. And when he was conducting South Pacific, during the dialogue scenes, he would sit and do a crossword puzzle. I just found this to be wrong, especially in full view of the orchestra audience.

      • Jack Jikes

        Yes! Someone finally said it.

  • JohninSeattle

    So, they *added* to a universally known and beloved work?

    I know that Romeo and Juliet (and even King Lear) were routinely performed with a whole new and happy ending. I suppose nothing is sacred. Custom and time and practice make everything bend. It is what it is.

    I look forward to some day seeing the Mona Lisa as a diptych with her “BEFORE” face! (I bet it was pout and we glimpse Leonardo D about to pull her finger.)

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    Yes, rewriting classics was typical in the Restoration. Shakespeare was considered a genius, but one who needed editing to make his work more rational.
    Even with LaChiusa’s prologue, the evening was only 75 minutes long. They could have found a better companion piece.

    • Krunoslav

      Langoustines grillées sauce aux huïtres?

      • Or a couscous royal. She was Queen of Carthage after all.

  • Krunoslav

    “Elliot Madore made a particularly amorous Aeneas who could barely keep his hands off his beauteous Dido. Unfortunately he struggled with the vocal amplification (though tastefully and modestly done) sounding muffled and cautious.”

    And casting directors the world over read the first sentence and ignore the second.

  • Lapetiteumlaut

    I understand from Broadway colleagues that O’hara is a lovely person to work with and that should and does merit continual work. But I just don’t get it--and never have. In each and everything I’ve seen her in, I find her utterly boring. Competent, sure, and better than most Broadway singers, but utterly boring. I’ve often felt if she weren’t a pretty blond that’s amicable and easy going she wouldn’t be working nearly as much as she is.

    Aside from Madore, I found her to be the weakest leak--pressed, sagging soft-pallete, inconsistent vibrato, lack of flexibility and muddled diction. The tone has always felt wooly, hooty and lacking focus to me with no warmth.

    Sang Fleming off the stage last year? I went twice with both a fellow singer and a total novice and without my saying anything, both asked me if she was originally intended to sing the role or if it was a last minute fill-in. She may’ve danced and acted Fleming off stage, I can live with that and I don’t think it was Fleming’s finest moment--but I have to laugh myself at any notion that O’hara’s singing was anything beyond passable. It was colorless, it was serviceable--but most efficacious in generating ticket sales rather than remarkable vocalizations.

    I understand voices are subjective--one likes Galli-Curci another prefers Callas; and everyone has something to offer. But when I go the theater (be it a ballet, opera, whatever) I simply wish to be moved. O’hara has only made me look at my watch and wonder about all the legit sopranos (both in theater and opera) whom they’ve passed over to highlight her. Pleasant is not incandescent. Vicky Clark--despite her undeveloped middle voice and limited operatic luster moved me far more than Kelli. There was utter commitment in her body/voice that the incredibly (physically) held O’hara could not offer.

    It’s been a decade I’ve been wondering what the charm is and politely keeping quiet about my utter befuddlement at the praise she garners. Perhaps it is I--though when I say this in passing conversation to other singers they seem to agree--but the reviewers and lay public adore her so like all media narratives it propels along.

    Or perhaps it is our expectations for theater singers (save for the Cooks, McDonalds and maybe Chenoweths) of the world are so low in the age of the pop-rock musical…or it is just the way the world turns.

  • Sempre liberal

    Any “The Light in the Piazza” fans? I loved Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara in it, and I saw it a few times. Good story, excellent music.

    “Statues and Stories” (from the 2005 Tony Awards. I still sing “we’re on vacation” every time I am on vacation)

    And Victoria Clark brought down the house with “Fable”.