John Frayne: Tale of Aeneas a wandering success
Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana (BACH) gave a staged performance of Henry Purcell's only all-singing opera "Dido and Aeneas" on Sunday at the Wesley Foundation, on the corner of Green and Goodwin in Urbana's campustown.
The performance was slated to take place in one of the University's round barns on St. Mary's Road, but the barn's seating capacity was limited and the demand for tickets so great that the show was moved to the hall at the Wesley Foundation.
This hall has enough of the baronial quality about it to lend an antique air. Alas, it was very crowded, and very warm there, and the air was close.
This was the first staged opera in the history of BACH, and this work, first performed in 1689, is Henry Purcell's only fully sung opera.
Purcell (1659-1695), one of England's greatest composers, wrote other works, called "semi-operas," which were a mixture of spoken drama and vocal music.
The first known performance of "Dido and Aeneas" took place at a boarding school for young ladies in Chelsea, run by Josias Priest, a famous dancer. The major roles of Dido and Aeneas were certainly not sung by students, but some minor roles would have been suitable for younger singers.
This opera lasts less than an hour, so the evening began with two string Fantasias by Purcell and a Suite of guitar airs by Nicola Mateis.
A small group of BACH string players projected well the shifting moods of Purcell's Fantasia No. 7 and No. 11, and in between lutenist Jeffrey Noonan played with an idiomatic touch the courtly airs of Matteis.
Purcell's librettist Nahum Tate, who became Poet Laureate in 1692, based the action on the fourth and most famous book of Virgil's great epic poem "The Aeneid."
After the Fall of Troy, the Trojan prince Aeneas and a band of followers go on a series of wanderings that will finally result in their arrival in Italy and the mythical founding of the city of Rome.
Earlier, a storm drives Aeneas onto the shores of Africa, where he encounters Dido, the queen of the new city of Carthage, which will be later Rome's mortal enemy.
The pair fall in love, but the gods call Aeneas to his destined role in Italy. (In Tate's version, it is a sorceress who spoils the romance.)
After Aeneas' departure, the abandoned Dido takes her own life.
The action of Purcell's opera moves at a very fast speed, and the sexual union of the lovers in a cave during a storm is, as befits a girl's school, glossed over.
This performance was directed and the dancing was choreographed by Philip Johnston, who has been a lecturer in the UI Depart of Dance since 1983.
Johnson had everyone in motion, if not dancing, then moving to the moods of the music.
Purcell's music has many light moments, expertly sung by the BACH chorus, and the dancers made the most of such moments with vivacious turns and leaps. The dancers were Alex Gossen, Claire Happel, Haley Jenson and Skylar Males.
The opening and closing scenes were staged at one end of the hall. The cave scene at the center of the opera was staged at the opposite end, and much action took place in between.
The musical direction was by BACH's founder, Chester Alwes. Chet did wonders in keeping this far-flung production together, down to its solemn tragic end.
The role of Dido was sung by Andrea Nowakowski, who was a co-winner of this year's Krannert Center's Debut Artist award.
With full, rich voice, and with brilliant high notes, she gave a very touching and regal portrayal of Queen Dido, moving up to a memorable outpouring of grief in the famous concluding aria, "When I am laid in earth."
Tenor Benjamin Krumreig gave a strong portrayal of Aeneas. Anastaia Malliaras sang with sweet sympathy the role of Dido's maid Belinda.
The Sorceress was sung with serio-comic gusto by Cynthia Bauder. Perla Robertson and Sarah Robinson convincingly portrayed, in song and dance, two witches. T.J. Wilson raised laughs as a boozy sailor, and his fellow choristers got good mileage out of a yellow rope.
Others playing key roles in this highly successful production were Chris Carl, who in the scenic design made simple settings go far, and Aimee Beach, who coordinated the choice of highly appropriate costumes.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.