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SCRUTINY | Dido And Aeneas A Scintillating Start To The Opera Atelier Season

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(Photo: Bruce Zinger)
(Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Opera Atelier: Dido And Aeneas by Henry Purcell directed by Marshall Pynkoski. Oct 20 – 29 at the Elgin Theatre. 

October is opera month in Toronto, as it invariably marks the opening of the new season for both the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier. The COC kicked off the proceedings two weeks ago with the great Sondra Radvanovsky as a dazzling Norma. Now it’s OA’s turn to enchant Toronto audiences, with yet another archetypal eternal feminine, that of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. It stars the brilliant Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta.  Toronto opera fans will likely remember her, as a young performer during her time at the Glenn Gould School and later as a member of the COC Ensemble. She has since crossed the pond to forge a European career as a member of the Leipzig Opera.  This run marks her welcome return. Giunta scored a big success last evening as a youthful, beautiful and alluring Dido. At the final curtain, all the artists were showered with audience accolades, with Giunta singled out for extra torrents of bravos.

The last time Opera Atelier staged Dido and Aeneas back in 2005, it was one-half of a double-bill, the other being Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Acteon. The Purcell opera is only 50 minutes long, making the pairing necessary to flesh out the evening. This time around, the Purcell masterpiece has been “stretched” to a full evening with the addition of a Prologue of spoken dialogue and dance sequences. Together with an intermission, it came in at just under two hours. Premiered in 1689, Dido and Aeneas at 327 years old remains one of the most beloved pre-Britten English opera. Given its age, much of the staging details have been lost. Although we do know that a Prologue existed, none of the music composed for it survived. Perhaps the purists among us would balk at the OA “enhanced” version, but to my eyes and ears, it works well. The Prologue involves a Narrator, reading excerpts from The Aeneid, here taken by Irene Poole, in a powerful and clear (albeit amplified) voice.

(Photo: Bruce Zinger)
(Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Interestingly, in an interview OA Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski says that this production is pared down, allowing one to focus on the internal, emotional landscapes of the main characters. Given the additional material, I’d think it has just the opposite effect. No matter, the prologue morphs quite seamlessly into the opera proper. As is typical of OA productions, there is plenty of dancing, not to mention OA-centric blocking and its stylized gestural language. The choreography bears a stronger kinship with the French (as opposed to English) tradition. That said, what we did see was entertaining, helped in no small way by the wonderful corp of dancers, and the two principals who are about as beautiful to look at as you would find on any opera stage.

Wallis Giunta in her sumptuous costume was a youthful and stunningly beautiful Dido, with a gleaming, rich sound to match, in an entirely winning performance. She was well partnered by tenor Christopher Enns as a princely and quite well sung Aeneas, a role that is sometimes taken by a baritone. He also has the clearest diction among the principals. The two had good chemistry and made a believable pair of lovers. Giunta’s big set piece, “When I am laid in Earth” came near the end. At that point, the stage dimmed completely, with only a spotlight on her shining directly on top, not unlike a chanteuse singing a torch song!  Her tone was beautiful, with the requisite pathos. In the few moments when she sang forte, her sound filled the Elgin.

(Photo: Bruce Zinger)
(Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Meghan Lindsay (Belinda), with her bright soprano, was a nice contrast with Giunta. She sang well, although I must say if it weren’t for the surtitles, I would not have known that she was actually singing in English.  Ellen McAteer as the First Witch made the most of her brief moments to shine. Laura Pudwell reprised her famous Sorceress from 2005. The dark timbre of her low mezzo was chill-inducing, not to mention her highly melodramatic cackling laughs. Her instrument has a very prominent register break between head and chest voices, which she used to comic and dramatic effect, based on the surfeit of laughter coming from the youngish audience.

The dancing with its rather generic OA choreography was never less than enjoyable, although I found it quite odd to see the use of castanets in one of the numbers in Purcell. I admit I haven’t thoroughly researched this, but somehow I rather doubt that this instrument was in use in 1600’s England. The OA chorus was exemplary as usual. Special kudos to David Fallis who led the Tafelmusik forces with verve, energy, as well as gentle lyricism — Bravo!  Authentic? Maybe not so much when it comes to the staging.  Entertaining and dramatically effective? Definitely! Performances continue until October 29 at the Elgin Theatre.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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