Dear friends and readers,
Sometimes we do go to live operas. And most of the time it’s one of the productions of Carla Huber’s In-Series, now in its 30th (yes thirtieth!) year. I want you to know how wonderful, original and daring this theater has been.
We were privileged on Tuesday night to be able to to go to a performance of the now over 200-year old chamber Baroque opera by Henry Purcell (composer) and Nahum Tate (librettist-poet): Dido & Aeneas, his abandonment of her taken from Virgil’s 4th book of the Aeneas. I think this may be the third time I’ve seen it: once downstairs in Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC (a 1970s short-lived attempt to do small operas at the Met, Piccolo Met), once at the Folger, and now on just off U-Street.
This time the theater was so crowded, there was not an empty seat. I fear not everyone knew what they were in for. I heard one woman gong on about the interesting plot, and during the intermission someone behind me exploded with irritation because she was completely grated upon by the formality, conventions, music itself of this 17th century piece. She “had not expected this!” The second piece was a ballet by Manuel Falla, El Amor Brujo (Love by Sorcery), whose puppet show version of Don Quixote Jim and I saw at Castleton a couple of summers ago, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show. It was very still: basically we watch a woman’s nightmare enacted in front of her.
I suspect many in the audience were there for Carla — or because they go to her productions. She seems to know so many people, even recognizes us (or pretends to successfully). She is a miracle woman. Thirty years ago she quit a teaching post in music in a local college and started up this theater. Most women who do it (and women do it) leave off after a couple of years at most: Catherine Flyte ran out of money; you have praise that’s high and not many people come; it’s vexing and tiring and often thankless. Exhausting. She manages partly by devoting half her time to Spanish cabaret which brings in a popular crowd. But she does not compromise quality, taste, intelligence either in her higher culture or more popular ethnic productions. Sometimes the costumes and production design is clearly done on a shoestring budget, and she moves from theater to theater. But she sustains herself. Five Mozart operas where the libretto was rewritten to be modern and relevant. Carmen redone from Jose’s point of view.
This Dido and Aeneas was stylistically performed, beautifully sung, and the costumes lovely and appropriate, but (as we have before) we wondered if there is not a problem in the opera itself. Nahum Tate’s libretto seems to veer between sceptical slightly mocking comedy (subtly seen in the light-hearted witches) and the plangent tragedy of an abandoned woman. That Aeneas is given this hopelessly inadequate explanation for himself does not help matters in the sense of understanding the opera’s stance. Jim suggested that perhaps the origin of the first production explains the see-saw quality where sometimes you find something ludicrous in language or act and cannot be sure it was meant to be funny. Purcell did the opera for a school of young women (girls really) and wrote a moralistic “warning lesson” for them. Nahum Tate, fresh from the Restoration theater, with its ribaldry and misogyny made fun. Or perhaps it was the other way round.
Remarkable how many of these masterpiece-gems in the later 17th cetnury are plays written for schoolgirls to perform: Racine’s Athalie one example. Even more: how adult and grave the content can be.
Be that as it may (as they say), the music is exquisitely poignant in Dido’s famous lament. I embed a YouTube from Hampton court; do click and listen:
I know much less about Love Through Sorcery. It too places a forlorn woman at the center, but she is not a passive or accepting victim. The first version was a gypsy scene. Originally Candelas was a gypsy from Cadiz who goes to a cave to a sybil to ask the witch to conjure up her lost lover. As directed by Alan Paul, this version gave us a working woman whose lover has died, but she cannot rid herself of ambivalent memories. She works up the courage to summon him, and remembers good as well as very bad times in order to exorcise the demon from her soul. The piece included dancing by an alter ego, pantomime, much poetry. I suppose it was a ghost opera. By contrast, Falla’s Don Quixote episode was witty and pessimistic. Both modern disillusioned pieces.
An excerpt of the ballet done traditionally in a large theater:
I asked the next morning on C18-l was there any literature, any secondary studies of this play. No answer cameth. But one friend said she finds herself driven wild by Dido: the play is so a male point of view.
The libretto is written strictly from a man’s POV … I, too, love the music -— Purcell was a musical genius -— our choir has sung some of his works [from his and Dryden’s “King Arthur”] and they were more fun to sing every time we rehearsed them). She was a queen! She’d get over that guy in no time flat -— I can’t stand Aeneas in this version. I just want to go up and slap her, shake her, and say “Get a grip, girl!” But that’s just me, most likely.
An essential source: “Stanley Sadie & associates, New Grove Dictionary of Music (‘Grove 5’) for reliable sources, mostly musicologists, on Purcell. (Purcell, one of my favorite subjects.)”
It is true that Purcell turns Virgil’s stoic male tale into one of the many tragedy queen operas to come. No different I suppose than many of our (by some) worshipped modern numinous stars and dead queens too (Marilyn Monroe dead at 33, Princess Diana), only more obvious. Think of all the Schiller based operas. A number of women poets wrote satiric responses to these tragedy queens, among them Anne Finch on Jane Shore (the play itself was political), Elizabeth Tollett on Anne Boleyn, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Mary Queen of Scots, to name but three.
So, gentle reader if you require an antidote to Dido’s lament, here’s
An Epilogue to a new play of Mary Queen of Scots [never finished], design’d to be spoke by Mrs Oldfield by Mary Montagu
What could Luxurious Woman wish for more
To fix her Joys, or to extend her Power?
Their every Wish was in this Mary seen,
Gay, Witty, Youthful, Beauteous and a Queen!
Vain useless Blessing with ill Conduct joyn’d!
Light as the Air, and Fleeting as the Wind.
What ever Poets write, or Lovers vow;
Beauty, what poor Omnipotence hast thou!
Queen Bess had Wisdom, Councel, Power
How few espous’d a Wretched Beauty’s Cause!
Learn hence, ye Fair, more solid charms to prize …
If you will Love, love like Eliza then,
Love for Amusement like those Traitors, Men.
Think that the Pastimes of a Leisure Hour
She favour’d oft — but never shar’d her Power.
The Traveller by Desart Wolves persu’d,
If by his Art the savage Foe’s subdu’d,
The World will still the noble Act applaud,
Tho’ Victory was gain’d by needfull Fraud.
Such is (my tender Sex) our helpless Case
And such the barbarous Heart, hid by the begging Face.
By Passion fir’d, and not with held by Shame,
They cruel Hunters are, we trembling Game.
Trust me Dear Ladys (for I know ‘em well),
They burn to Triumph, and they sigh — to tell.
Cruel to them that Yeild, Cullys to them that sell.
Beleive me tis by far the wiser Course,
Superior Art should meet superior force.
Hear: but be faithfull to your Interest still,
Secure your Hearts, then Fool with who you will.
and Anne Finch’s The audience tonight seems so very kind. Tollett is not so satiric because her Anne writes the night before she is to be beheaded, but she is far wryer, corroded than Tate and Purcell’s Dido. It is also fair to say that Dido has not been picked as a favorite tragedy queen by other men, and in women’s poetry is often used as a Penelope type icon: strong, individual, independent, and ethical, even if done in the end. Anne Finch identifies with this Dido in an autobiographical teasing poem to her husband, asking him to come home after a quarrel: A Letter to Daphnis at London
Not that I don’t love Traviata.
I digress in order to suggest some lines of identification and full context. for both Dido and Candelas (who might be seen as a quiet prosaic daughter of Merimee’s Carmen in the short tale).
We ate out in a nearby good small French restaurant and I had my first ratatouille in years. Washed down by Merlot. Jim a steak similarly washed down.
In January Carla will do Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito on Mozart’s birthday. Since Jim and I and Izzy are going this Saturday to an HD Met performance I’ll be able to compare. I’ll bet Carla’s is as good, and perhaps more relevant. Who knows? maybe the libretto will be one of her updated ones.
In honor of the In-Series and Carla Huber, apparently not a lamenting dying nor ghost-haunted lady.