Sorcery abounds in the plot of Dido and Aeneas. But the real sorcerers in the current production of the Purcell opera are the music and stage directors, Brian Davenpor and Dennis Feldman, who have convincingly brought the opera alive using the most austere resources. The set contains nothing but backdrops, two sets of somewhat bleacher-like steps for the chorus, and three marvelous pillars that, when necessary, rotate to become trees. Shadows from the chandelier give depth and subtlety to this classically simple (though simply unclassical) design. The costumes possess the same flexibility through simplicity. This was especially valuable for the chameron chorus which, throughout the opera, moves in and out of the role of a troop of witches. The blocking and choreography, however, seemed too plain and somewhat stiff, with the exception of an inspired milling, circling witches' dance early in the third act.
The chorus more than made up for what it lacked dramatically by its singing. It blended well, producing a remarkably rich sound for a group of only fourteen voices. The women sustained the more lyrical phrases far better than the men, and consequently the best choruses were the more bouncy ones, like the "Ho, ho!" responses to the first witches' scene. The chorus' intonation was nearly flawless, and every word was intelligible.
Dido and Aeneas does not have any spoken dialogue, and about half of the music is allotted to the chorus. The rest is a mixture of recitatives and ensemble music, with a few arias. The quality of the principals was less consistent than that of the chorus. Ruth Vebelhoer, the sorceress, has a powerful and attractive voice, and she used both her voice and beautiful gestures well in communicating the sorceress' ghastliness. Of the two witches, Phyllis Wilner had the better disciplined voice; both she and Gareth Wellington sang sensitively, especially in their duet early in the second act.
Michael Ellman's sailor was sweet, if a little out of tune, and Joyce Gregorian's voice and musicianship as the 2nd woman were pleasant when she could be heard. In the more important role of Belinda, Maureen McGuire sang gracefully, although her tone was occasionally a little too tgiht. Her unhurried and slightly restrained approach to her role was effective. Akiva Kaminski was curiously costumed as Aeneas, with what looked like a red Coop scarf around his neck. A baritone singing a tenor role, he sang most of his part with an annoying wobble, and sounded strained on the high notes. But he, almost alone among the principals, made his words clear, and he played his role vigorously. Janina Mukerji sang Dido with perfect control and intonation. Both her voice and acting were warm, and her sorrow and anger at Aeneas' fickleness were the most powerfully conveyed emotions of the performance.
The strings did not distinguish themselves except by their sensitivity in balancing their volume with what the singers were able to produce. However, Warren Steel produced an imaginative realization of Purcell's harpsichord part, and his short interludes were among the most delightful moments of what was overall quite a good performance.