Few art forms are under less pressure to make sense than opera, if only because people sing rather than talk. But that doesn't mean anything goes, which seemed to be the case with the oblique
, a Curtis Opera Theatre production of Purcell's
Dido and Aeneas
and then some.
Though considered to be pretty much perfect, the short Purcell opera was preceded Thursday evening by a lot of grim, cynical music by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (mostly the Berlin Requiem) in an experimental staging that suggested director Jordan Fein has a middling case of Berlinitis. The studio theater production was an intentional collage of tangentially related elements: silver leaves on the ceiling, dirt on the floor, and ghostly vocalists in formal wear climbing out of battered coffins and getting grimy while singing.
Much of the time, I was intrigued. Certainly the social realism of Brecht's worldview created a brutal contrast with the poised formality of Purcell's Dido, who is tragically loved and left by Aeneas. Brecht was a buzzkill; Purcell had a more balanced view of humanity. If nothing else, the production's sensibility was welcomely reminiscent of the Berliner Ensemble (founded by Brecht), while the coffins recalled war-inspired public monuments seen in Berlin.
Performancewise, the cast seemed game for everything, using a semi-vernacular vocal style for Weill and having a reasonable command of Baroque vocalism for Purcell. As Dido, Lauren Eberwein had a soulful, dusky mezzo. Alize Rozsnyai had an appropriately bright soprano for Belinda. The highly communicative Julian Arsenault (Aeneas) seemed to be vocally under the weather.
Witches, spirits, and sailors were portrayed by the Brechtian denizens, mostly seated along the side, one of whom was a war veteran whose bandages were removed to reveal facial disfigurement. The Curtis Collegium under Matthew Glandorf had a rough start but found its legs.
Just as the Purcell opera was headed toward its ultimate conclusion - Dido's great aria "When I am laid into earth" - Rozsnyai broke into a wild vocal cadenza that turned out to be Luciano Berio's 1965 Sequenza III. Rozsnyai seemed alternately to be having a seizure and singing in tongues, though you soon realized she was displaying profound imagination and control.
Berio might've crystalized the entire evening: Sequenza III's text by Markus Kutter continued the evening's ongoing theme of sympathy for womanhood. The Brecht texts portrayed the plight of war widows with allusions to the drowned Ophelia. Brokenhearted Dido is similarly victimized. The Berio speaks of "a few words for a woman to sing ... allowing us to build a house" (suggesting the stability that Dido lacks).
Such words, however, appear in a soup of graphic (rather than traditionally musical) notation, leaving them splintered into meaninglessness amid extreme musical gestures. Thus, Purcell takes a huge left turn. Experimentation is usually healthy, but inserting one piece into the body of another - this felt like an Alien movie - simply shouldn't be done.