January 31, 2009 - THE PLAIN DEALER
Need help preparing a 350th-birthday celebration? Look no further than Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra.
Music director Jeannette Sorrell and company are in the midst of throwing a series of enchanting parties for Henry Purcell, the English composer who was born in 1659. Their program of theater music and the opera "Dido and Aeneas" runs through Tuesday at Cleveland's Josephat Arts Hall.
"Dido" is the first fully-staged opera presented solely by Apollo's Fire, which performed an opulent production in 1998 in collaboration with Toronto's Opera Atelier. The 2009 version is simple in the best sense of the word: sets are minimal, costumes elegant, music-making primary.
Josaphat Arts Hall, a former Polish Roman Catholic Church on E. 33rd St., proves an almost ideal fit for Purcell's masterpiece. A stage platform sits snugly between two columns. Sorrell, conducting a wonderfully lucid and vibrant reading of the score from the harpsichord, is situated nearby with seven instrumental colleagues and Apollo's Singers, the ensemble's chorus.
"Dido" has come down through the centuries minus a complete prologue. Sorrell solved the dilemma by concocting her own witty version for five charming young women - known as Apollo's Musettes - evoking the girls who introduced the opera at a boarding school in 1689.
What follows is a swift, tender and exquisitely conceived account of "Dido." Stage director Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere has shaped the piece with a graceful hand, allowing the characters to respond naturally to the music. The dances are the work of Carlos Fittante, who performs his animated simulations of Baroque movement winningly with Robin Gilbert Campos.
The acoustics at Josaphat are kinder to musical sounds than to English words, which aren't always intelligible. But the production makes fine use of space, placing the nefarious Sorceress (Meg Bragle) and her cackling witches (Sandra Simon, Abigail Haynes Lennox) in a choir loft.
Several singers from the 1998 production have returned to recreate their roles, including the sonorous Bragle, bright-voiced Simon and Meredith Hall, whose portrayal of the anguished Queen Dido is even more affecting in the 21st century.
Hall is the picture of dignity as the love-stricken queen. The soprano gives nuanced life to every phrase, floating lines with limpid beauty and bringing expressive poignancy to Dido's lament, "When I am laid in earth."
Aeneas isn't much of a character, but Sumner Thompson sings the role with stalwart assurance. His crisp enunciation ensures that every word reaches our ears.
Simon and Lennox do dandy double duty. They are poised as Belinda and the Second Woman, respectively, and hilarious as old-hag witches with Cockney accents.
Even the members of Apollo's Singers - who are so articulate and unified doing their usual chorus thing - let down their hair as they rush onstage to cavort as the wildest witches in Northeast Ohio.