The Cal Performances season opened this week with the annual visit of the Mark Morris Dance Group, in a revival of Morris’s 1989 classic, Dido and Aeneas. Philharmonia Baroque played Purcell’s music. I was at last night's performance.
I have seen Dido several times, but only when Morris was still dancing Dido/the Sorceress; sometimes it is part of a double-bill and sometimes it’s on its own. Both methods work; it certainly is a rich enough hour on its own, but it worked strangely well coupled with the company’s shortened version of 4 Saints in 3 Acts (though I think they did 4 Saints first; I would have reversed the order, so that you had earthly suffering followed by heavenly joy). The first time I saw Dido it was a stand-alone and it must have been shortly after the Belgian premiere.
I think the most recent time was also a season opener for Cal Performances. I saw it twice in that run, and it was fascinating to see how Morris adjusted his performance for the second night – the first night there had been a pre-performance party for donors and maybe people had too much wine, since there was some laughter at what were seen as Morris’s more flamboyant gestures (I liked having a man dancing Dido and the Sorceress because of the link to ancient Greek tragic theater, but I am relentlessly aesthetic and high-minded and there’s always the danger some people are going to assume it’s meant purely as camp, if you can describe camp as "pure"). The next night, all the gestures that evoked laughter were made sharper and more angular and there was no laughter.
Morris has transitioned to conductor of the piece, shaping an alert and well-paced performance from Philharmonia Baroque (though for some reason the pauses between scenes struck me as held just a bit too long; as always, though, I can’t rule out that I was just being weird). The piece survives and triumphes with its second generation of dancers. Domingo Estrada Jr was a virile and sensitive Aeneas, expressing both a lover’s suffering at abandoning Dido and a leader’s recognition that he must move on with his troops (it’s quite an achievement, particularly in this short and Dido-centered opera, to make Aeneas this sympathetic; we are empire-dwellers but like to pretend that love is the obvious choice over duty).
Amber Star Merkens was a perfect choice to take over Morris’s role; in fact she somewhat resembles the younger Morris (particularly in her flowing tangle of dark curls, which she ties back for Dido and loosens for the Sorceress, just as Morris did), though I think she’s taller, leaner, and more sinewy. (Maile Okamura was nicely contrasted as a daintier, sympathetic Belinda.) Merkens makes little gestures count for a lot, as in her final confrontation with Aeneas, as the tender slight movement of her hand (to “by all that’s good”) gives way to the injured dignity of “it’s enough that once you thought of leaving me.” Her Dido is regal and moving. Her Sorceress is cynical and nihilistic and amused. She’s dazzling in both roles.
Stephanie Blythe certainly provided the vocal equivalent, with a beautiful, hall-filling voice, so expressively used, particularly in the suicide aria at the end, when Blythe and Merkens together indelibly expressed Dido’s sorrow and dignity and beauty. Philip Cutlip was distinguished as Aeneas, but had a few slight vocal bobbles. The other soloists (Yulia Van Doren as Belinda, and the First Witch Celine Ricci as the Second Woman and the Second Witch, and Brian Thorsett as the Sailor) were all strong. The chorus was very good and actually enunciated more clearly than some of the soloists (of course, I was sitting right in front of them, my view of the stage slightly blocked by the rising curl of the cello; such are the hazards of preferring the front row).
When Dido and Aeneas touch, it is briefly, and often at a distance from each other (arms extended, space between). The Sorceress is isolated, even from her attendants (Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray), except for one moment, when she reaches the climax of her evil plan to destroy Dido, and they jump up on her, one on either side, and balance for a moment of glee. Usually she disdains even them, and is clearly and amusingly bored by their baroque repetitions and repulsed when they or any of her attendants come too close to her. We see Dido and Aeneas make love, but we see the Sorceress masturbate alone while her attendants scamper behind her; afterwards she wipes her finger with a bored “well, that’s over” expression. It's profoundly moving to see royal Dido's suicide brought about by this solitary hater of human joy, and a rich connection to have one dancer play both parts.
The setting is stripped down, with a vague blue and gray map of the Mediterranean glowing palely as backdrop to the Carthage scenes, reminding us that Aeneas has to go off and found Rome, and with black banners streaming down for the Sorceress. The dancers' movements are frieze-like and angular and often resemble classical Greek vase paintings. Even many of the movements in a line proceed at an angle. But then there are odd jittery moments thrown in, or little crude jokes, reminding us that more is going on here than an attempt to recreate the vanished (and partly unknowable) style of the Greek tragedies.
The gender ambiguity continues, with the corps, both men and women, portraying female attendants, male sailors, and in-between witches. (The Sailor’s solo is jauntily danced by Lauren Grant.) They do this by switching their black skirts to black pantaloons (I don't know if they just hitch them up or whip them off; their tank tops are always black). Some of the men have slightly crimsoned lips and gold hoop earrings. Dido has glittery silver nails and Aeneas’s nails are black.
At the end the stage slowly darkens as the attendants slip off in pairs through the curtain center stage, behind the dead queen prone on the bench facing us, her head bowed down towards us and arms extended out on either side. Belinda remains and takes a seat on the right side of the bench near her dead sister, and bows her head as the stage reaches almost total darkness.