Boston Early Music Festival's production of Dido and Aeneas last weekend, but I wasn't prepared for the blue-haired mêlée that nearly broke out at Jordan Hall as customers swarmed the lobby for tickets. Given that local print critics have been fairly indifferent to the festival's operas made this doubly surprising, and in a way heart-warming. Jeremy Eichler can hold his nose as long as he wants, but word is getting out anyway, and BEMF is becoming one of the hottest tickets in town.
Well, perhaps I shouldn't hold Eichler's perfunctory review(s) against him - he's only a music critic, after all, and are music critics really qualified to review opera? Probably not. Or at least not when a performance is as stuffed (or in the case of Dido, over-stuffed) with ideas - theatrical, historical, and cultural - as Gilbert Blin's recent productions have been for BEMF. To reviewers like Eichler, directors like Blin just "get in the way" of the music. The idea that said music is only part of an artistic synthesis doesn't seem to have sunk into Eichler's ilk; it's as if they were all born before Wagner was. To them, an opera is just a concert where everybody walks around.
The rest of us, however, should be very happy that BEMF has Blin - whom I happen to think is a world-class director - handling its productions. In the old days, the BEMF operas were lovely musically, but conceptually directionless - and sometimes marred by local frat boys recruited to stomp around in feathered headdresses as supernumeraries. Blin has changed all that, and brought BEMF's stagecraft to something like the same level as its musicianship. He's also brought a high level of conceptual intelligence to the endeavor - he knows that the early music movement is politically and intellectually interesting in a way that Schoenberg, for instance, no longer is. Under his guidance, BEMF has begun to hint at what it means for us post-moderns to have turned away from the played-out tropes of "revolution" and devoted ourselves instead to the resurrection of long-lost performance styles.
To Eichler, I think, what period performance "means" is mere nostalgia and reaction - which would be a convincing argument if the contemporary music scene wasn't generally recycling itself, and if the early music movement wasn't more politically progressive than the mainstream. But those facts mean you have to treat period performance with an intellectual seriousness and depth that you just can't glean from listening to more and more recordings of Monteverdi and Lully on your stereo. Yet that's Eichler's approach - he has enormous expertise (far more than I've got!), but this deludes him into imagining himself a kind of musical sommelier rather than an actual critic. And needless to say, if they're not drinking a particular vintage in New York (and the Big Apple - from which Eichler hails - is certainly not known for its period music scene), then how can it really be any good?
Thus the local musical community endures a critical situation that's actually more destructive than what the dramatic community endures. At least the local theatre critics don't try to ignore (or maybe even subtly suppress?) what's happening on their beat; they may not be up to the challenge of analyzing it, but they don't try to pretend it's unimportant. In fact, the local theatre press is always hoping that somehow Boston might establish itself theatrically as "the new Chicago." The funny thing is, in terms of period music, Boston already is the new Chicago. Yet the Globe and other press fixtures relentlessly focus on the BSO rather than what actually gives Boston its national and international profile - and forgive me, but the BSO is really a kind of permanent touring company from New York, which makes it politically kind of creepy, even if technically it's superb.
Okay, enough about Jeremy Eichler - back to Dido and Aeneas - and what I admit is going to seem like a critical 180. For I felt Dido was a mixed bag, and not quite in the same league as Blin's exquisite L'incoronazione di Poppea or his by-now-legendary Acis and Galatea (which BEMF has wisely decided to tour). The program notes described the opera as a kind of "noble torso," like the Venus de Milo, as it's in a somewhat-fragmentary state: we've lost the music for its prologue, as well as for some of its dances (and its epilogue was spoken sans music to begin with). So BEMF decided, in the hopes of restoring a sense of "completeness" to the work, to append to it some musical "arms" (and a few additional limbs, too). Blin and musical director Stephen Stubbs drew upon music from other Purcell works to fill in the perceived gaps, to generally successful effect; the many versions of the Venus de Milo with arms have all been judged failures, it's worth remembering - and I wasn't entirely sold on this production's prologue (which was fine music, but didn't really hint at the poetry of Dido); still, I warmed to the hearty epilogue, and the dance interludes seemed about right.
And to be honest, at its best this Dido proved wonderful, and its conceptual and historical frame was certainly apt. Blin imagined his production as a performance at a country manor of Purcell's period, with servants and farmhands filling out the roles around a central performance by the lady of the house. This is a variant of a trick he has deployed before (in Acis and elsewhere), but in those previous versions to more consistent effect. Here Blin was clearly going for a mix of sophistication and naïveté in his principals to match the conceptual yin-yang of Purcell's original production - Dido may be built around one of the most hauntingly mature evocations of tragedy in all opera, but we know it was written for a girls' finishing school, and must at first have been performed by young people with only rudimentary musical training. Thus its themes are lovely but simple, and its villains a bit silly - and like any good high-school pageant, it's studded with what amount to variety acts (so much so that Blin has a point when he says Dido plays more as masque than opera).
But Blin uses that "masque, not opera" trope to cover his tracks as he pulls this production through several sharp turns of tone - and only partially successfully, I'd argue. We can buy that his Dido must morph from bemused hostess to tragic heroine (only to "wake up" again the lady of the house), but Blin pushes her tormentors, the Sorcereress and her witches, so far into silliness and camp that we have trouble connecting their antics to the emotional stature of the tragedy they wreak. (This Venus came not only with arms, but a whoopee cushion, too.)
And at a deeper level, Blin violates his own conceit with these scenes, which he puts over with drag-queen comedy and Mickey Mouse voices. Suddenly we no longer seem to be at Castle Howard, but instead with Ursula the Sea-Witch from The Little Mermaid (above). It's not that drag and caricature have no place in these scenes - it's that the drag and caricature Blin served up, funny as it may have been, was nakedly borrowed from Disney. The concoction offered for the "Sailor's Dance" - more drag, mixed with yet more shenanigans - likewise felt torn from any convincing historical context.
Other conceits, which more closely matched the overall framing, fared better. The integration of period dance into these productions always raises interesting issues - because dance on stage means something quite different now than it did then. Back then, "choreography" was still embedded in courtly behaviors - it was the ultimate stylization of an idealized vocabulary of movement, and courtiers were expected to be proficient at it. If the historical conceits of BEMF's operas were thoroughly consistent, the aristocratic singers themselves would take to the dance floor with little ado.
Of course, given the dancing skills of many vocalists, that's probably not such a good idea - thus BEMF relies on a crew of trained period dancers. But Blin still finds ways to allow his dance sequences to rise naturally from the operatic milieu, and he has devised one of his most inspired gambits for Dido. The "dance done for Aeneas" took the form of a mimed version of the myth of Actaeon (to another piece of interpolated music), which was mysteriously touching in its simple props and execution - and seemed to offer this listener a certain frisson of recognition; perhaps, the thought occurred to me, this is indeed what such a courtly entertainment must have been like.
But oh yes - what about the music? Well, since you asked - the instrumental playing (by a nimble ensemble led by resident geniuses Stubbs and Paul O'Dette) was never less than brilliant, and the vocals were strong, but not unvaryingly so. Mezzo Laura Pudwell has been widely criticized for her Dido, and I too found her selection at first a bit puzzling. But her voice is certainly pleasing - it has a slightly earthy lustre that's beguiling - and within Blin's reconstruction of the opera's original context (when it wasn't sung by Dame Janet Baker or Jessye Norman, as one critic wished) her presence made sense. And I have to say that however silly this show got at times, Pudwell was tragically riveting in her famous lament - more moving than most of the Didos I've seen and heard (as she perished, the entire cast, in another inspired stroke by Blin, slowly collapsed, too). Pudwell's Dido was more than matched by Douglas Williams's Aeneas; this young bass just keeps sounding deeper and richer, and he's a handsome, resourceful theatrical presence to boot; a debut at the Met isn't far off, if there's any justice in the world. The rest of the cast was better than competent, but not always consistent in articulation and projection; to be honest, I've heard almost all of them (Jason McStoots, Teresa Wakim, Yulia van Doren, Zachary Wilder) sound better on other occasions. They cohered beautifully in the choruses, however (another reliable BEMF strength), of which there were many. I left this Dido with a few doubts, it' true, but many more fond memories.