November 13, 2021
|Nikola Printz as Dido, Efrain Solis as Aeneas. |
Photos by David Allen.
Opera San Jose could not have picked a more perfect way to welcome back live audiences than Purcell's brief and lovely Baroque masterwork. Taken from the most famed section of Virgil's Aeneid, the opera offers a remarkably captivating account of the doomed affair between the Carthaginian queen and her Trojan suitor.
Purcell's spare orchestration, played here without any exotic early-music instruments, gives a rare amount of space to some magnificent voices. Chief among these is mezzo Nikola Printz's performance as Dido. In their opening aria, "Ah Belinda!, I are pressed," Printz expresses the queen's fear of her feelings for Aeneas with an elegant sense of legato and phrasing. Their attention to dynamics is revealed time and again through lovingly crafted lines, and dramatically they carry the core of the opera's emotional arc.
|Nathan Stark as the Sorcerer.|
Playing Aeneas, baritone Efrain Solis displays an impressive range of coloration, from the charcoal-edged intensity of his lower range to a free and light eloquence in his higher, more tender entreaties. The absolute showstopper is bass-baritone Nathan Stark as the villainous Sorcerer. With the help of makeup designer Heather Sterling fierce touches (black veins!), Stark deploys his powerful instrument to scare the hell out of us.
Through all of this is a talented and active chorus, providing a running commentary in the Greek fashion and, under stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer and choreographer Michael Pappalardo, a tremendous amount of motion and dance. The most entertaining of these scenes is a crew of drunken sailors, trying their best to return to their boats ("Come away, fellow sailors").
The production design is lovely and imaginative, especially Ulises Alcala's Indian-influenced costumes. Dido's first-act dress is bridal white with black floral designs at the hem. In the third act, the designs are red, providing between them symbolic omens of ill fortune and death. Aeneas appears in a festive pink suit and leather vest. The dancer playing Venus in a skit wears a huntress outfit with dazzling golden boots and armor.
To modern ears, the score offers elements that seem oddly ahead of their time. Purcell left certain passages open to improvisation; cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak and guitarists Robert O'Connor Miller and Timothy Sherren composed these parts before the performance. At the conclusion of the opera, as Printz sings Dido's well-known lament, "When I am laid in earth," before going off to die, quite literally, of a broken heart, rose petals fall from the heavens (delivered, according to the libretto, by mourning cupids), creating the kind of exquisite image that we have all so terribly missed.
Through Nov. 28, California Theatre, San Jose. Proof of vaccination and photo ID required, and masks must be worn inside the theater. $55-$195, www.operasj.org
Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of the opera novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice, available at amazon.com.