Cast Gives Haunting Performance of “Dido and Aeneas”

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

With the sunset illuminating the stained glass windows of a packed Fairchild Chapel Saturday night, the stage for Dido and Aeneas seemed far removed from the rest of campus life. The opera’s overture, which showcased the baroque instruments used in the performance, immediately transported the audience back in time. The cast of the opera entered in procession and took its place on stage, beginning what was to be an hour of captivating storytelling and a celebration of music and the human voice.

The opera, composed in the late 17th century by Henry Purcell with a libretto by Nahum Tate, is a retelling of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. The story is relatively simple: Aeneas, a Trojan prince, and Dido, the queen of Carthage, fall in love and decide to marry. However, a sorceress who wishes to destroy Carthage tempts Aeneas to leave Dido in an effort to devastate her. Aeneas, believing the sorceress is speaking to him as a god, makes plans to leave Carthage and sail to Italy. When Dido discovers that Aeneas is leaving, she dies, heartbroken. The text and score of the opera provide many opportunities to delve into the realms of magic and court life — something the cast and stage director and Conservatory senior Jason Goldberg took full advantage of.

The cast of the opera, all Oberlin students, was extraordinary. Double-degree fifth-year Katherine Early, in the role of Dido, shone in virtuosic soprano solos throughout the piece. Her voice filled the chapel, and her acting added dimension to the challenging part.

As Aeneas, Conservatory senior Adam Wells brought a depth and intensity to the part that thrilled, in both his solo pieces and duets with Early. Conservatory senior Alexandra Bass, who played the sorceress, seemed to delight in the dances and cackles of all her witches and demons. The style of her performance contrasted greatly with that of the other leads, but the dichotomy of the sorceress’ abandon and the courtiers’ relative restraint added to the story.

While the lead cast members all gave spectacular individual performances, group numbers were no less extraordinary thanks to their perfect blending of powerful voices.

Although Dido and Aeneas is a tragedy, Saturday’s performance also highlighted moments of levity for some much-needed comic relief. One such scene involved a group of sailors with whom Aeneas was preparing to travel. While the entire cast was dressed in togas and period costume for the performance, costume designer and College senior Sonya Berg added anachronistic white naval caps to their attire. Paired with the sailors’ teasing demeanor throughout the rest of the scene, this elicited a well-deserved chuckle from the audience.

Berg’s costumes also helped distinguish the multiple roles that some of the actors played and represented the transitions between scenes with small embellishments added to their togas. This costuming emphasized the major roles of some followers of the sorceress, while allowing them to fade back into Dido’s court with ease.

Some of the most surprising and stunning parts of the performance were the dance sequences. This production showcased the talent of choreographer Julie Andrijeski, a leading expert on baroque dance and music and a lauded baroque violinist and senior instructor in the Music department at Case Western Reserve University. Andrijeski’s choreography allowed a new facet of this opera to shine during the performance, as the six dancers made transitions and expanded the scope of the opera to celebrate dance. It must have been no small challenge to choreograph dance sequences of this complexity on such a small stage, but the dancers moved as though they had all the room in the world.

Andrijeski’s sense of exactness also enhanced the performances of the main cast, as the dancers’ every step and movement seemed meticulously rehearsed. While this sometimes produced a stilted effect, such as when the entire cast would angle their heads a certain way, the precision of their movements translated to equally precise performances. Through the cast and the dancers, Andrijeski reflected the strictness with which the opera would have been performed in Purcell’s time.

The penultimate scene from this opera, and its most famous aria, is “Dido’s Lament.” As Dido grieves Aeneas’ departure, she sings, “Death is now a welcome guest,” and instructs her court, “Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.” This scene was made more haunting by the ensemble cast. All of the members of Dido’s court wore plain masks that signified they were under the sorceress’ control. Dido looks from face to face and finds that they have all become strangers, unrecognizable. As she looks to each one of them, they turn away, leaving her to die surrounded yet alone. This horrifying but beautiful conclusion to the tragic story shone with the talent and devotion of all involved.