L.A. Opera’s current presentation of Dido & Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle, two separate, hourlong operas, makes for a night of distinct contrasts. Although each work involves a pair of tragic lovers and are both, as director Barrie Kosky says, “two operas about lost Eden,” they couldn’t be any more dissimilar tonally.
With its earliest known performance in London in 1688, Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas was one of the first English operas. In this production, it’s served as a light appetizer by a small orchestra of 22 musicians along with a large chorus, who sometimes uneasily navigates librettist Nahum Tate’s jarring shift from sunny, bucolic comedy to stormy romantic tragedy.
After intermission, the orchestra swells to 82 people for composer Béla Bartók and librettist Béla Balázs’ 1918 one-act, Hungarian-language opera Bluebeard’s Castle. It requires just two singers and is such a dark, twisted and morbidly doom-ridden fairy tale that it’s frequently exhumed for the Halloween season.
Kosky directed last year’s well-received production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for L.A. Opera, where video images were projected onto the singers in an inventive visual twist. This time, joined by Katrin Lea Tag (scenery and costumes) and Joachim Klein (lighting design), Kosky makes great use of a long white bench as the base for the chorus’ flights back and forth from the orchestra pit in Dido & Aeneas. The staging and movements are particularly striking when the full-bodied chorus (directed steadily by Grant Gershon) huddles tightly together in a vibrantly colorful quilt of pastel dresses and period costumes or slinks into the pit, hissing en masse to conjure oddly hypnotic waves of sibilant whooshes.
As the sorceress who drives apart lovers Dido and Aeneas, John Holiday unleashes a fearsome falsetto, although his campy pratfalls and the bobblehead mannerisms of the other witches (G. Thomas Allen, Darryl Taylor) tend to fall flat, with the gender-bent casting seeming more quaint than provocative. Kateryna Kasper portrays Dido’s sister, the handmaiden Belinda, with a little too much wide-eyed verve, but the soprano’s voice rings like a bell clearly and brightly over the melodic hills of “So Fair the Game.”
Baritone Liam Bonner is a dashing and amusing Aeneas, although one wishes he were a bit more forceful vocally. The Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy manages to be captivating throughout as Dido, a difficult role, even after she’s stripped from her magnificent, swan-like light-pink gown and has to carry an extended death scene with little more than a serenade of sobbing sighs and gasping sounds while the orchestra and chorus silently file out, leaving her alone onstage.
After intermission, the set for Bluebeard’s Castle is revealed to be nothing more than a large, circular, glowing white slab, which rotates and rises at times, resembling a luminescent ice floe. Its starkness creates the perfect backdrop as the bedraggled hoarder Bluebeard takes his new bride, Judith, on a tour of the seven locked rooms in his lonely, dreary castle. Whereas other productions of Bluebeard’s Castle tend to be lavish and pile on the gothic ornamentation, Kosky stirs up dread and menace through minimalist, clever staging. For instance, he represents the castle’s walls via the zombie-like gestures of an octet of actors in black suits and dresses and symbolizes the rooms’ contents by having streaks of glitter, strands of ivy and water spurt magically from the sleeves of the suits.
Bass-baritone Robert Hayward is a foreboding presence as Bluebeard, and he has great chemistry with Claudia Mahnke, whose voice peals radiantly and powerfully as Judith trying to bring light into Bluebeard’s creepy lair. Conductor Steven Sloane deftly manages the large orchestra, calling up a searing blast of brassy golden horns as the couple enters the fateful fifth room.
Dido & Aeneas is an entertaining diversion, and given considerable heft by Murrihy’s engrossing performance, but Bluebeard’s Castle will stick in the memory longer, thanks to Bartók’s eerie score, Kosky’s icily arty atmosphere, and the dramatic way Hayward and especially Mahnke make their interplay of attraction and repulsion so fascinating.
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L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. dwntwn.; Sunday, Nov. 2; Thursday, Nov. 6; Sunday, Nov. 9; Wednesday, Nov. 12; and Saturday, Nov. 15. (213) 972-8001, laopera.org.
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