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Dignity Personified

Apollo's Fire performs 'Dido and Aeneas',
enjoyed by KELLY FERJUTZ


The classical music world is big on celebrating anniversaries of composers -- and performers, as well. Who can forget the world-wide celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006? This year is an even more auspicious anniversary. Britain's first famous composer -- Henry Purcell -- was born 350 years ago, so on a cold and snowy January evening [30 January 2009], Jeannette Sorrell and her Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra threw him a joyous birthday shindig -- a costumed and staged presentation of his opera Dido and Aeneas. Coincidentally, it's also the 320th anniversary year of Dido's début in London.

On this occasion, the orchestra itself was a mini-version -- nine players only -- in addition to Ms Sorrell who directed from one of the two harpsichords. In addition, there were several splendid soloists, two dancers, Apollo's Singers -- a mixed-voice chorus, and five charming young Musettes.

Josaphat Arts Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Josaphat Arts Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

The setting for all this wonderment was Josaphat Arts Hall [Cleveland, Ohio, USA], an older, somewhat run-down Catholic church that had been closed due to economics after having faithfully serving its parishioners for 83 years. Now, ten years later, it has been re-born as Josaphat Arts Hall, which houses a gallery as well as a performing arts space, and provides a splendid graceful setting for banquets and parties.

Most ecclesiastical spaces are shaped like a shoe box, with the stage area at the narrow end. For this performance, however, it was turned sideways, with a small raised platform stage placed mid-way along one long side. The audience was thus stretched out in front of it, in six longish rows, providing close proximity to music and action. The orchestra and chorus were placed on stage right, although singers and dancers could enter from either side.

The tale of Dido, Queen of Carthage and her temporary lover Aeneas, escaping after the fall of Troy who lands at Carthage, is ancient. Ms Sorrell's imagination made the whole seem fresh and vibrant. To help the short story along a bit, she also added other theatrical music 'Ayres' by Purcell as a sort of prelude to the main event. These seemed all of a piece and blended well with Dido, being excerpted from his King Arthur, Dioclesian and The Fairie Queen.

Apollo's Musettes portrayed five young girls from the boarding school where the opera was first presented all those years ago. The prologue was provided by Ms Sorrell who created her own version of the missing pages. They were appropriately teenaged girls with giggles and gasps and big eyes.

Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière of Montreal served as both stage director and costume designer. Caroline Guilbault created masks and headpieces as well as the set design, which was primarily large painted backdrops or scrolls. The total effect was bright and colorful and very effective.

Meredith Hall as Dido. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner
Meredith Hall as Dido. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner

Soprano Meredith Hall was dignity personified as the troubled Dido, who is, after all, a queen. Still, in spite of being a widow, she hasn't forgotten the joy of falling in love. She was luminous in her portrayal, at times girlish in her new happiness or resigned and accepting in its loss. Her rendition of Dido's Lament was truly touching.

It was easy to imagine her falling in love with the Aeneas of baritone Sumner Thompson who is appropriately tall, dark and handsome, and possessed of a lovely voice and great diction! He was a splendidly heroic character, right up to the point where he turned into a cad, running out on his new love after only 'one night enjoyed'.

From left to right: Sandra Simon, Meg Bragle and Abigail Haynes Lennox - The Sorceress and The Witches. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner
From left to right: Sandra Simon, Meg Bragle and Abigail Haynes Lennox - The Sorceress and The Witches. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner

Of course, it wasn't all his fault, because the sorceress and her witches were truly scary, aided greatly by colored lights and storm sounds! Taking advantage of the space at Josaphat Arts Hall, the Sorceress, mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle and her witches were, for the most part, ensconced in the balcony. The witches, sopranos Sandra Simon and Abigail Haynes Lennox, did double duty, also portraying Belinda and Second Woman, respectively.

Dancers Robin Gilbert and Carlos Fittante. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner
Dancers Robin Gilbert and Carlos Fittante. Photo © 2009 Steve Wagner

Dancers Carlos Fittante and Robin Gilbert Campos added greatly to the telling of the story, whether as cupids or spirits, triumphs or echoes. Mr Fittante also doubled in a silent role as one of the drunken sailors, tenor Scott Mello being appropriately tipsy and nicely vocal as the other.

Speaking of dignity, it was fun to see the usually calm and dignified Apollo's Singers shed their inhibitions and dance crazily around the sorceress in her one visit to the stage itself.

Copyright © 19 February 2009 Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland, USA


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