Semi-staged opera lives in a half-world—part orchestral concert, part dramatic presentation. “We call it enhancing, “ says Aidan Lang, who directs the Handel & Haydn Society’s upcoming presentation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. “It is a concert first off,” he says. “But we try to move people away from the concert experience.”
The goal is straightforward: to involve the audience in a dramatic narrative. But using only subtle gestures and movement—no costuming, certainly no sets. Focus on the music, but help everyone visualize the story.
Lang, who recently announced he’s leaving the directorship of Seattle Opera for a similar position with the Welsh National Opera, has plenty of experience with H&H’s music director Harry Christophers. They’ve teamed up on Dido several times, and also semi-staged Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen, Handel’s Samson, and other Baroque operas.
“We strive for active engagement with the audience,” Christophers says. “Any acting is minimal. It’s tricky, because Dido is so short. The scenes are incredibly concise. We’re talking about 24 hours from beginning to end.”
Tricky also because the Jordan Hall stage is also filled with instrumentalists. Using the lip of the stage, creating pathways around and through the orchestra, even spilling out into the audience, Lang and Christophers will focus on the music, but try to bring the story of doomed love to life visually as well.
“Sitting and listening to an orchestra is fundamentally a static image,” Lang says. “As soon as you flip that around, even slightly, the audience shifts their focus. In a production like this the orchestra has an active relationship with the audience, not a passive one.”
All the slight things augment the viewer’s experience—using their own imagination. Nods, glances, hand gestures, small movements on the the stage—every single action brings the audience into a world that has long since past, but whose story remains pertinent.
“We’re reimagining it,” Lang says, “so that people find a connection, so they find the universal truths that move from era to era.”
Mezzo Susan Bickley sings Dido, and baritone David McFerrin her duty-bound lover Aeneas. Sailors and witches round out the cast—Purcell inserted a Macbeth-like twist to the story, with a pair of sorceresses to help drive the plot. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook, countertenor Reginald Mobley, and sopranos Sarah Yanovitch, Sonja DuToit Tengblad, Margot Rood and Sarah Brailey round out the cast. They’ll recreate the story of the queen of Carthage, welcoming the wandering warrior to her court, then falling in love with disastrous consequences.
“At the heart of it is the story of Dido and Aeneas, of love and duty,” Lang says. “With her dalliance in love, her kingdom is suffering. Just as Aeneas has a sense of duty, she does as well. And she’s taking leave of her people.”
As both directors point out, the physical gestures are meant to aid the music—not replace it, or overwhelm it. The strength of the score, and the idiosyncratic brilliance of Purcell’s text-settings, are the real core.
“Purcell is quintessential English,” Christophers says. “He’s a Londoner through and through. He wrote so much music with that English quirkiness. He had great insight into the personalities he wrote for, and he really gets the text. No English composer wrote for the English language like Purcell.”
Extensive experience staging Baroque operas has taught Christophers more about bringing the music to life.
“We all knew Purcell was good, but we didn’t know why,” he says. The resurgence in popularity of early opera, and the increased number of performances world-wide, have offered insights into the music.
“Purcell has benefited from the early-music movement, from repeated performances,” he says. “We had to play his music in order to stop making little corrections to it.”
The practice of correcting a score may seem strange—but in the less precise world of Baroque notation, the idea that the musicians simply play the notes in front of them is hardly true. Possibilities for interpretation are everywhere.
“We now believe in Purcell’s rhythms, we don’t try to iron everything out,” Christophers says. “The continuo players have free license to improvise—I tell them, ‘You’ve got to go further to make total sense of it.’ ”
Making sense of the sweeping tale in the intimate confines of Jordan Hall, with limited action, no costumes or props—this might feel like a burden for some directors, but Lang embraces it. Having the audience close to the action approximates contemporary concert-going experiences.
“In Jordan Hall you can make it a rock concert with Baroque music,” Lang says. “You can give it sharpness, and focus the audience, move them out of their comfort zone.”
Out of a comfort zone perhaps, but never far from the directness of Purcell’s message.
“The singers are not clutching a score,” Lang says. “There’s nothing in the way. They’re trying to speak to people today, not just about a piece of the past.”
The Handel & Haydn Society performs Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas on March 29 and 31 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. H&H performs the same program March 30 in the Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. For tickets and information visit www.handelandhaydn.org or call 617 266-3605.