Whether by good luck or good design, November 11 – Remembrance Day – could not have been a more appropriate date for the opening of IOpera’s double bill of Dido and Aeneas and The Emperor of Atlantis. The choice and timing of these two chamber operas holds extra significance within a context of Russia’s current military operations – a situation that both dismays and appalls.
In a fascinating exploration of power and militarism, Stage Director, Gert Reifarth, has combined England’s most famous operatic masterpiece from the 1680s with an unfamiliar work composed in the Czech ghetto/concentration camp of Terezín (Theresienstadt) in 1943. It is an unlikely pairing that Reifarth’s ingenuity has woven together in a number of surprising ways, the most obvious being the use of a narrator. Victor Ullmann and his librettist, Peter Kien, incorporated the role of Loudspeaker (narrator) as an integral part of their opera, but audiences know Purcell’s work as a story of love-betrayed with commentary chiefly sung by the chorus.
Reifarth has used excerpts from a number of sources for the Purcell narration: Virgil’s Aeneid, Marlowe’s play Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella The Maracot Deep – all of which broadens the context of the action. Despite what could have been dubious “Regietheater”, in this case, the fundamentals of the stories remained intact and the music itself was treated with the utmost respect. Under the musical direction of Peter Tregear, a small ensemble of outstanding singers and a very fine chamber orchestra gave buoyant life to Purcell’s score. The absence of a pit at the Lithuanian Club Theatre did present the occasional difficulty with regard to the text being clearly audible, mainly when all players were at full strength, but this was much less of an issue for the Purcell than the Ullmann. To aurally underscore the links between the two works, the use of a drum was a clever device that was used judiciously and to good effect in the Purcell; it accentuated the military dimension and foreshadowed the Drummer – a central character in the Ullmann.
Makeup and costumes provided visual links, with white faces and rosy cheeks in both operas referencing commedia dell’arte and Weimar cabaret. The military costumes of the Narrator and chorus simply reflected the theme of war fundamental to both operas. Aeneas has just fled the Trojan War and is off to conquer Italian territory, leaving Dido behind at the mercy of her enemies, while the titular Emperor – a thinly disguised Hitler figure – oversees the death of countless numbers.
A large table covered by a white cloth was a mysterious presence during the Purcell, its purpose only becoming apparent at the end of the opera. When the abandoned Dido expired, Death (a central character in the following opera) entered to cover her in a shroud, and the tablecloth was removed to reveal an armory of weapons and a bank of telephones. There was no taking of bows at the end of the first opera, just silence – a time to absorb what we had just seen. Any applause had to wait until the end of the second work.
The casting of roles was also key to connecting the two operas. Tiernan Maclaren was a lively presence as Narrator/Loudspeaker and ensemble member, his voice well projected and pleasing. It was inevitable that Aeneas and Emperor Overall would be sung by the same person, and Christopher Hillier was just the man to fit those bills. He radiated determined energy, his smooth, focused baritone a force capable of filling a venue many times the size of the Club Theatre. It was perhaps a little too dominant at times in the Purcell, but ideal for an unhinged Emperor. As his Dido, mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman sang beautifully, spinning out long phrases with the most luscious tone. She certainly knew how to use her eyes to “confess the flame her tongue denies”, but the amorous encounters tended to be awkward and unconvincing. Nevertheless, Reifarth created some powerful moments for Dido, which Flatman performed with quiet dignity. Her initial gesture of reaching her hand towards a momentarily absent Belinda, and later singing the final great aria without Belinda were moving and theatrically compelling. Any possible aversion to a mismatch between what is being sung and seen became totally irrelevant. Eliza Bennetts O’Connor was well-suited to the role of Belinda, her sweet soprano tone and delicacy an appropriate foil to Flatman’s qualities.
Robert Macfarlane’s important roles of Sorcerer and Harlequin both required the kind of exuberant characterisation this singer thrives on – just occasionally a little too much. He was able to colour his beautiful tenor voice with exactly the right shade of malice to summon up the “wayward sisters”, and was an energetic participant in the dances, with Esther Counsel and Cecily Woodberry his enthusiastic accomplices. He was also a valuable member of the many choruses. As Harlequin, Macfarlane declaimed the monologues, including those occurring in the head of the Emperor, with verve.
Of the eight members of the chorus for both operas, one member shone in particular. Singing the top soprano line, Lisette Bolton was secure, resonant and unfailingly expressive, and her ability to manage a good top C in the chorale at the end of the evening was impressive. In addition to her Second Woman in the Purcell, her performance as Girl to Douglas Kelly’s Soldier in the Ullmann was a highlight of the opera. Their lyrical duet, accompanied by Rachel Bullen’s alluring oboe was an unaffectedly poignant moment amid the havoc.
In the role of Death, who goes on strike because of the overwhelming number of dead, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i was superb. His fabulous bass voice eloquently portrayed the gravity of a powerful figure offended by the disrespect shown in such unbridled slaughter. Victoria Lambourn was the personification of military precision as the Drummer in both voice and movement.
IOpera’s double bill was a valuable opportunity to experience Dido and Aeneas from a new perspective and to become better acquainted with a composer whose career was tragically terminated simply because he was a Hungarian Jew – one of those rounded up and eventually sent to Auschwitz after being paraded as part of a fictional (Atlantis-like) success story of Nazi benevolence at Terezín. Lest we forget – indeed.
Heather Leviston reviewed the double bill of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Victor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” presented by IOpera at the Lithuanian Club Theatre on November 11, 2022.