Tonight and tomorrow: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas gets student-inspired production at York University


The wildest Dido and Aeneas I've seen was a 2007 effort by Sasha Waltz at Sadler's Wells set in and around a gigantic aquarium (David Levene photo)

What do you do when you want to put on an opera, butcan’t afford to build sets? Use the bodies of your cast and chorus to set the scene.

That’s the thinking behind vocal professor Catherine Robbin and theatre professor Gwen Dobie’s cross-departmental student production of Henry Purcell’s ever-lovely Dido and Aeneas at York University tonight and tomorrow. Projections and lighting will further help set the mood in the Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre at the university’s spiffy performing arts digs.

The conductor — music prof Stephanie Martin — has organized period-performance continuo support for the singers. Dance prof Susan Lee contributes a modern-dance emphasis on the choreography.

Purcell’s tidy, three-act opera, which turns 325 next year, is one of very few Baroque-era works with music in regular performance since its début as a student show at a London girls’ school.

The style and quality of productions is as varied as the clouds in the sky. The wildest I’ve seen was a 2007 effort by Sasha Waltz at Sadler’s Wells set in and around a gigantic aquarium — call it Tank Girl Goes to the Opera.

The earliest surviving score for the opera is not by Purcell, so there are dozens of scholarly revisions, conjectures and debates that anyone producing it needs to confront. But no one argues over the beauty of the music.

For all the details on the this week’s two performances, and to order the $17 tickets, click here.

Here is a little background video released by York earlier this week:

The most famous aria from the opera is Dido’s Lament. It can provide a fascinating look at how the sound and feel of Baroque music has changed over the last half-century.

My all-time favourite Dido is local mezzo Laura Pudwell, who can be heard here with Le Concert spirituel, led by Hervé Niquet:

Thy hand Belinda, darkness shades me, on thy bosom let me rest. More I would but death invades me, death is now a welcome guest. When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast. When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but, ah, forget my fate. Remember me but, ah, forget my fate. Remember me, remember me, but, ah, forget my fate. Remember me, but, ah, forget my fate.

Here is what a great performance of the Lament sounded like in 1967, thanks to Mauren Forrester and her accompanist John Newmark:

And then, there is the multitude of individual spinoffs, like this one performed by the Swingle Singers in Moscow four years ago:

… or this chilling take by pop singer Jeff Buckley, heard here at the Meltdown Festival in London in 1995:

John Terauds

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