Fascinating Double Bill Of Short Works On Love And Isolation At LA Opera This Week
Created almost 230 years apart, the short operas Dido & Aeneas and Bluebeard's Castle may never enter the repertory as a standard double bill like "Cav and Pag," but Australian director Barrie Kosky's paired production, now playing at LA Opera, cannily posits a kind of dialectical aesthetic contrast between them. Though their musical and stylistic differences are perfectly obvious, the works share a thematic bond in their portrayal of eternal isolation ensuing from the fateful cutoff of a desperate love relationship.
In the story of English composer Henry Purcell's 17th-century Dido and Aeneas, based on the ancient myth, the title lovers are divided by the machinations of a trio of malevolent witches. These devious conjurers are usually played by women, but Kosky gives the roles to three bearded countertenors. Once the sorceresses have momentarily cajoled the heroic Aeneas (Liam Bonner) into abandoning Dido (Paula Murrihy), even the subsequent change of heart that prompts him to recommit to staying with his bride is not enough to dissuade her from ending her own life in noble shame.
The opera concludes with Dido's famous lamentation aria, "When I am laid in earth," which Murrihy sings with heart-rending beauty while the rest of the cast, as well as the musicians in the pit, all get up and walk out of the playing area in a slow recessional. The end of life for Dido, as perhaps for all of us, is not merely her final loss of breath, but also the moment of her ultimate abandonment by everyone who once attended her. This image is moving enough even to overcome Kosky's strange, unfortunate decision to overemphasize Dido's death throes by having her ostentatiously gurgle and gag for an extended moment over the solemn closing chords of Purcell.
Although the cast of Dido and Aeneas includes several principals and a full chorus, Kosky restricts the opera's performance area to a narrow strip in front of a long downstage bench, running the entire width of the Dorothy Chandler proscenium, with a hard backdrop immediately behind it. Bela Bartok's World War I-era modernist gem Bluebeard's Castle, which features only two singers (along with a few silent performers), conversely plays out on a rotating raked disc that occupies virtually the entire depth of the stage space.
While much of the Kosky Dido is almost goofily deconstructed, the dramatic power of Bartok's Hungarian retelling of the Bluebeard legend is accorded serious deference here. As the bride Judith (Claudia Mahnke) demands that Bluebeard (Robert Hayward) hand over one key after another to long-locked doors in the castle where she is to live, each room reveals a foreboding secret. Adding to the sense of dread about what has been and what may be to come, Kosky has ghosts of Bluebeard's own past emerge from three of these chambers and the four men join hands in a reluctant ring step evoking Ingmar Bergman's cinematic dance of death. Rejecting Bluebeard's plea not to open the castle's seventh and final door, Judith's fate is sealed and Bluebeard, like Dido, is consigned to a permanent solitude.
Despite the occasionally distracting staging in Dido, the glory of Purcell's score is well served not only by Murrihy, but also by Kateryna Kasper as her confidante Belinda and, especially, the company chorus, whose harmonic "To the hills and vale" is a memorable highlight. (Bonner, who made such a strong impression as Billy Budd last season, doesn't have a similar opportunity in the milquetoasty co-title role of Aeneas.) Bluebeard benefits more from Kosky's striking stage effects, which illustrate Judith's discoveries in each successive room, while both Hayward and Mahnke are devastating as the lovers who can't resist the inexorable draw of their tragic fate.
Working in two entirely different musical idioms, conductor Steven Sloane neatly shifts from understatement to brashness. And Kosky's unlikely suggestion that these operas from different periods and places in history may just have something to say to each other proves to be a winning gambit. Who knows, either, if this couple will ever even meet again.
LA Opera's Dido & Aeneas / Bluebeard's Castle double bill plays this Wednesday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from $19