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!