Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Barrie Kosky’s Spirited “Dido and Aeneas” Arrives at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014

October 26th, 2014

Barrie Kosky’s production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” is the first half of a double bill of operas being performed by the Los Angeles Opera. A review of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”, the second half of the double bill, may be found at Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014.


Director Barrie Kosky’s innovative production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” proved to be one of Los Angeles Opera’s most popular recent mountings.

Kosky returned to introduce two new imaginative productions as a double bill, the first half of which was Henry Purcell’s 17th century masterwork “Dido and Aeneas”. The opera dates from 1688, the momentous year in which the Stuart Restoration ended and the “Glorious Revolution” of King William and Queen Mary began.

[Below: Composer Henry Purcell; resized image of John Closterman’s painting, from wikipedia.com.]


Purcell is regarded as the greatest composer of the English baroque era and the most important English opera composer before Benjamin Britten’s stellar rise in the mid-2oth century. But “Dido” is unusual fare for major opera companies.

Therefore, its reconceptualization by Kosky and its introduction to American audiences by the Los Angeles Opera is of more than routine interest.

Kosky’s Staging

Kosky, who used animated projections so effectively for the “Magic F’lute” relies on choreographed motion as a key element for staging “Dido”.

The performance begins with a curtain slowly rising (a technique to be repeated later in the evening in “Bluebeard”) to display a long pale blue-green bench that crosses the entire front of the stage.

[Below: Queen Dido (Paula Murrihy, left) romances the Trojan warrior Aeneas (Liam Bonner, right, reclining); edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]pale


Just behind it is a corrugated wall that spans the front of the stage. All members of the cast and chorus are seated side by side along the expanse of the stage (except Aeneas, who will “arrive” later – arrivals and departures are themes that link “Dido” and “Bluebeard”).

The chorus, throughout the performance, contributes in often-unexpected ways to the visual presentation.

[Below: Dido (Paula Murrihy, center, seated on bench in pink dress) sits above Belinda (Kateryna Kasper, front right center) and the Second Lady (Summer Hassan, front left center) as two chorus members (right and left) gesture with their arms; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Although dressed in costumes from different eras, including the present day, often they will react with a single gesture – a sudden bow in unison, a simultaneous covering of their eyes.

At other times the chorus members will fall upon one another in a heap, or leave the stage to cluster in the dark around the orchestra, singing their opinions of the onstage goings on of the Carthagenian queen and the Trojan prince, at one point engaging in a loud and theatrical whisper.

[Below: the choristers exhibit collective emotion; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


A Sorceress and Her Witches 

No characters leave a more distinct impression than the Sorceress and the two witches who wish the land to be rid of the foreign presence.

Although representing the forces of evil, Kosky treats them as comic characters. Hilariously played by three countertenors, John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen and Darryl Taylor, they became obvious audience favorites.

[Below are assembled (from left ot right), the First Witch (Virginia countertenor G. Thomas Allen), the Sorceress (Texas countertenor John Holiday), and the Second Witch (Michigan countertenor Darryl Taylor); edited image of a Craig Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


 Liam Bonner’s Aeneas

North America has produced a crop of fine lyric baritones, one of the most notable being Liam Bonner, some of whose recent triumphs have been chronicled here [See Superbly Cast and Conducted, the Los Angeles Opera’s “Billy Budd” is a Theatrical Triumph – February 22, 2014 and A Feisty, Funny “Fledermaus” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2013.]

Casting Bonner, an innately likeable performer, as Aeneas, gave the role a dynamic feel, looming larger than the part. (I suspect I might have had the same reaction had this production been available for Nathan Gunn a decade earlier.)

[Below: Liam Bonner is Aeneas; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Bonner presents a vocally secure action hero whose dalliance with Dido should have been regarded by her as her good fortune, until he is called upon to complete the far more important task for which the gods placed him on earth – the creation of Rome and of Italy.

Missouri tenor Brenton Ryan impressed in the two roles associated with Aeneas’ departure, the spirit that counseled him to resume his journeys and the sailor who helped round up his ship’s crew.

Paula Murrihy’s Dido

To Paula Murrihy’s Dido, Aeneas’ time spent with her was no dalliance but a profoundly transformative experience, so that Aeneas’ departure causes her to die of heartbreak.

“To die of heartbreak” is virtually always considered a catch-phrase, rather than tbe description of a physical process. Kosky’s actual presentation of Murrihy’s character’s final minutes may be unprecedented on the operatic stage.

[Below: Dido (Paula Murrihy), abandoned, succumbs to death by heartbreak; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.    


Gasping for breath throughout the multiple repetitions of the continuo’s theme, Murrihy’s Dido succumbs before our eyes. As she dies, every member of the chorus and orchestra leaves the auditorium, one by one, Murrihy the only artist left, sitting alone on the long green bench.

The conductor was Steven Sloane. The small baroque orchestra was enriched with instruments of the kind used in the baroque era. There included two of the long-necked lute-like theorbos, that look so exotic in the raised orchestra pit. Yet, with Handel’s “Partenope” still in performance at the San Francisco Opera, one is aware that there were at least theorbo instrumentalists at work in California opera houses in late October.)

Katrin Lea Tag created the sets and costumes, Joachim Klein the lighting. Grant Gershon, the Los Angeles Opera’s resident conductor and chorus master, conducted the chorus.


I recommend this production to the adventuresome, to those who wish to have a profound theatrical experience, and to all lovers of baroque opera.


For further discussion of “Dido and Aeneas” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” and opera in general see the associated Facebook site “Opera Warhorses”

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