For a short opera, “Dido and Aeneas” has a powerful impact.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Purcell’s poignant 17th-century masterpiece – or its lingering impact on music today. Lasting just under an hour, the opera set the bar high for the tragic works of centuries to come.
Opera San Jose’s new production, which brings the company back to the California Theater after more than 18 months without in-person performances, promises a thrilling reminder of why “Dido” is an opera of all time.
Directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, directed by Music Director Joseph Sleeves, and starring mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and baritone Efrain Solís in title roles, the production also features Maya Kherani as Belinda, bass baritone Nathan Stark as the sorcerer and dancers of the San José Dance Theater.
Based on an episode from ‘The Aeneid’, Virgil’s epic tale of the founding of Rome, the opera focuses on the Trojan Prince Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. En route to Rome, Aeneas is sidelined by their ecstatic love affair, with tragic results.
Written when the composer was only 30, Purcell’s score is an indelible portrayal of grief – but Printz says there is enchantment and deep moments of humanity in opera too.
“It’s incredibly moving,” said Printz, who uses the pronouns them and them, in a recent interview. “It’s also the very nuanced story of a leader.”
“The story is timeless,” they added. “It’s a tragedy, but there are moments of lightness, love and flirtation. Still, it speaks to the archetypes of extreme emotion: rage, jealousy, and utter sadness. “
Director Pulitzer calls the opera “a complex and nuanced tale of a ruler – the vacillating roles of a woman and a queen.” It is fascinating to watch the struggle between what an individual desires and what a state demands. If you suddenly have a spouse or union, what does that mean in terms of autonomy? Aeneas is not to be laughed at – a prince and a demigod of Venus. There’s a lot going on with that.
From his perspective, Solís sees Aeneas as a man in a state of extreme conflict. “He is stuck between having to make this decision: is he pursuing love or duty? Anyone who aspires to some sort of career talks about it. He says “I will follow love”, but it’s too late. There’s a reason operas like this have endured: it’s very relevant.
Dido’s great track, “When I Am Laid in Earth” – also known as “Dido’s Lament” – has become a standard in concerts and recordings. Printz remembers hearing it “since before I was an opera singer. I remember Jeff Buckley singing it, but not knowing the context.
“Since then, I have sung it a billion times throughout my studies and career. But I sing it differently now, knowing how far Dido has come. This opera is short, but there is so much going on. It’s packed, nonstop. He has to hit every mark for the story to move forward, and keeping that energy and that course of action is somehow harder to be shorter.
Dido, Printz adds, is a mercurial figure throughout. “She starts the opera very resilient – of course she finds Aeneas attractive, but she doesn’t want to give up her power. Her sadness comes from the idea that she must have a partner to rule.
“When she meets Aeneas, she thinks, ‘Here’s someone who doesn’t want to marry me for political power.’ When he has to go, it’s heartbreaking.
Despite his beloved status in the opera world, there is no definitive score for “Dido,” Pulitzer notes. “Looking at all the different materials available was really fun,” she said. “There are multiple variations on the libretto, speculation about the missing pieces, all that sort of thing. Maestro Marcheso and I had a lot of conversations at the start about what’s in and out. I felt it was important to stay true to what was in the material and not add things from other sources.
“But there are two improvisation guitar sections – and these are included. They are sometimes optional. But to me, they seemed essential as one of the dramatic turning points in the story. And it’s as fresh as it was probably 300 years ago.
Printz praises Pulitzer’s directing – “I think about how ‘Star Wars’ is in the distant future, but it also seems like it’s in the past” – and Solís says the director infused production with beauty. “Elkhanah really focused on the connection between Dido and Aeneas. I love what she did to expose their relationship: Dido is my main focus on the show. (He and Printz, he notes, have known each other since conservatory days, and they often rock climbing together.)
Now that theaters are reopening after more than a year of pandemic shutdowns, the exacerbated world of “Dido and Aeneas” seems a good starting point for these artists.
“In a way, this opera is terribly modern,” says Printz. “And that sounds honest. I think people want to see honesty on stage now.
Contact Georgia Rowe at [email protected]
‘DIDO AND AENAS’
By Henry Purcell, presented by Opera San Jose
When: November 13-28
Or: California Theater, San José
Security: Proof of vaccination required for entry and wearing a mask required inside the theater
Tickets: $ 55 to $ 195; www.operasj.org