Saturday night, the Columbia Bach Society put on a performance of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Bwog sent our trusty opera extraordinaire Alexandra Svokos to check out the show and report. We all know this Alexandra can’t say no to a good opera.
Space at Columbia is likely the performing art community’s greatest challenge. It was a major player last night at the Columbia Bach Society’s performance of (get out your Lit Hum notebook) Dido and Aeneas, a (get out your Music Hum notebook) Baroque opera by Henry Purcell. They performed the hour-long piece in St. Paul’s Chapel, with (get out your Art Hum notebook) its symmetrical, domed ceiling making haunting echoes of the music bouncing of all walls. The acoustics created an airy, mystical atmosphere for each voice, adding to Virgil’s legend.
But the acoustics weren’t the only aspect of space that played a major role in this performance. Due to some classic bureaucracy issues, the group was unable to remove two rows of seats. This meant a smaller performance area – there is no stage in the chapel; they performed at the front of the altar. For us in the front row this provided an unusual immersive experience as the singers brushed our feet and sang half a foot away from us.
As this was a Bach Society production, director Chris Browner, CC ’16, Spec opera reviewer and young opera fan icon of yore, decided to showcase the orchestra. Led by a marvelously expressive William Yu, SEAS ’17, on violin as concertmaster, the nine musicians were placed in the center of the “stage.” The singers moved in circles around the orchestra, often singing behind them from steps up on the altar. This became an issue for some singers who could not get their voices above the orchestra from behind, although the building’s acoustics gave them a little boost.
Special note has to be made of music director Kevin Lee, CC ’14, who brought the complicated piece together. As conductor, Lee was moving and energetic, with a smile on his face as he mouthed all the words. In a post-show Q&A, he revealed a deep knowledge of Dido and Aeneas and Baroque opera, and it’s clear he brought that to the show. Frankly, he made me wish I played an instrument, if only to be able to have the experience of playing under his caring, guiding hand.
Due to the unexpectedly shortened space, the cast had to rearrange their staging. The chorus was largely affected by this, making it obvious at points that they weren’t sure exactly where to go. Though the actions were clumsy, the voices of the chorus were lovely, especially from soprano Isabella Livorni, BC ’15. However, the four-person group could have benefited from doubling in size – their voices were sometimes lost between the orchestra and lead singers.
Among those big lead voices was Isaac Assor, CC ’14, as the titular Aeneas. Assor’s booming voice cannot be contained by the small performance spaces he finds himself in on campus, and his careful work on an arioso sighing about having to leave Dido was impressive and deeply felt with stirring vibrato. On the receiving end was Devon Mehring, CCxJ ’14, as the tragic Dido. Mehring has a beautiful mezzo voice that she adjusted perfectly for the room, only getting better as the opera went on. Some of her enunciation was messy, but really who cares when her expressive voice let us understand exactly what she meant? Mehring’s “Dido’s Lament” was emotional and the final lines – “remember me, but ah! forget my fate” (disclosure: one time I wrote a Lit Hum assignment about it) – were memorably crafted and left a lasting impression.
Playing Dido’s sister, Hannah Gorman, CC ’16, was a burst of life. Her excitable acting was on-point and added to the drama. Gorman’s light soprano was sweet, especially after she warmed up some, but still underdeveloped – I do hope she continues singing, as her voice has a lot of potential. Similarly, Christine Rosenblatt, BC ’16, gets better with each show. As Rosenblatt’s partner in witchery, Annalise Perricone, CC ’16, did not have enough time to get her voice in loud practice, but she pranced about with enjoyable energy. As their guiding sorceress, Esther Adams, BC ’16, had a colorful sound, but did not have as much time onstage as her solid voice deserves.
Presenting a Baroque opera is hard for anyone nowadays, but these performers were able to insert life into Dido and Aeneas. The costuming was simple and effective but the hair and makeup was even better. Kevin Lee did really fantastic work with this show, pulling out expressive performances from the musicians. All of the instruments “onstage” were beautifully employed, creating a marvelous musical experience for the audience. Perhaps with better performance space the staging could live up to that caliber.
Sass from the past via WikiCommons