The opening of L.A. Opera’s pairing of Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle was musically the best night I’ve spent at the opera in two decades. The two works may have little in common on the surface, but they are arguably the pivotal one-act operas in their respective centuries.
Before entering the Dorothy Chandler my companion and I had speculated on whether Dido would be ‘romanticised’ to match with Bluebeard, or whether Bluebeard would get the ‘go for baroque’ treatment in the interests of a unified aural experience. The fact that conductor Steven Sloane is able to deliver stylistically pitch-perfect renditions of both works is the most stunning success of the evening.
Purcell’s music gets the vibrato-free, gut-string sounds it needs in order to support the breakneck tempo choices. Era-appropriate baroque flutes and a wide variety of continuo instruments – from organs to theorbos and chittarones – gives the music a coloristic edge over almost every other performance I’ve ever heard, including the ‘authentic’ ones. And any ‘liberties’ that are taken, inventive ornamentation and un-‘operatic’ vocal styles, are all well within the range that one imagines for the period yet rarely hears. It is, in essence, fearless.
No less authentic is the expressionism of Bluebeard. It is just as spot-on as Dido, with due attention paid to the irregular rhythms of the Hungarian language and the orchestra being unleashed with abandon when it needs to be, yet held in reserve until those moments. It is a reading in which every nuance of Bartok’s orchestration rings true, with, again, flawless tempi.
Despite Barrie Kosky’s staging (frenetic in the normally staid Dido, phlegmatic in the normally overblown Bluebeard), the star of the evening is the conductor from beginning to end. However, it is the staging that the L.A. Opera is actually selling, as witnessed by the posters outside with their hints of the iconography of The Walking Dead. In Dido the stage is reduced to just the downstage, and characters mostly sit in a row along a huge white bench, occasionally leaping down into the orchestra pit via two functional staircases. Stylised movements are the order of the day, with sudden head-banging sessions and a sorceress, sung by John Holiday, who parts her legs obscenely in the air.
The maximalist movements upon a much truncated stage are contrasted in Bluebeard with minimalist movement set against a very large stage. However, the coloured lights and elaborate staging effects offered by many Bluebeard directors – often worried by the cast of two and exclusively interior action – are completely eschewed. The only real object on stage is a huge, rotating white disk in which the protagonists are symbolically trapped, a cycle from which there is no escape. Occasionally other characters, clearly splintered aspects of Bluebeard and Judith, pop into view – yet these are unnecessary because the psychodrama between the two is so well delineated that the set and extraneous characters are pretty much irrelevant.
Robert Hayward and Claudia Mahnke in the two roles, both making their L.A. Opera debuts, are vocally and dramatically perfect. There is fine singing, too, from Paula Murrihy as Dido, whose passagework at these tempi is a technical marvel, and a sweet-voiced Liam Bonner as Aeneas. The passagework of the chorus, too, must be mentioned. One can rarely expect precise ensemble work at lightspeed.
It’s good that American audiences should finally get a dose of Eurotrash, which is rapidly becoming passé in Europe. In fact, Kosky’s direction fails as Eurotrash in that much of it makes too much sense – though just when you think it’s all about to gel there’s always some quirky silliness to bring you back to the real world. In Dido, the best directorial touch is to have Aeneas refer to the “monster’s head” impaled on his spear in a way that clearly refers to Dido and sexual conquest. This is chilling and beautiful.
I overheard a little old lady remarking to her friend that she now understood Dido and Aeneas for the first time. One wonders what’s to understand: boy has sex with girl, boy goes away, girl dies. It’s a baroque Butterfly.
The girl dying is the one issue I would take with this production. No matter how bizarre it is, it never intrudes on the brilliance of the music – except in Dido’s death scene, where Kosky’s decision to have Dido emit a series of raucous death rattles manages to mask one of the most sublime string passages in the entire baroque repertoire. Had those sounds come from the audience, their perpetrator would have been escorted off the premises.