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February 7, 2011

American Opera Theater's double bill of 'Gonzales Cantata,' 'Dido and Aeneas'

The reason a lot of folks turned out over the weekend for American Opera Theater over the weekend was probably because of the first work on the double bill, Melissa Dunphy’s “The Gonzales Cantata.”

I’d say the better reason to catch the presentation -- an extra performance has been added to the two already scheduled next weekend at the Theatre Project to meet demand -- is the second piece, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”

If this turns out to be AOT’s swan song (there may be a spring venture, but this has been announced as the final season regardless), the company will have departed true to form.

Founder Timothy Nelson put an emphasis on baroque repertoire from the start, so the Purcell opera -- the same work he launched AOT with seven years ago -- makes an apt choice. And Nelson has shown a flair for stretching the envelope in a variety of ways, so Dunphy’s satirical item, based on congressional testimony by former Attorney General Albert Gonzales, fits that bill nicely. Another element in AOT's development was the embrace of collaborations; the double bill has been co-produced with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory.

Too bad “The Gonzales Cantata” is

such a weak composition. The basic idea looks a lot more interesting on paper than it turns out to be in the theater. The text finds senators, including our own Ben Cardin, grilling Gonzales over the controversial firings of Justice Department personnel; his famous inability to recollect anything becomes the basis of an extended aria.

Dunphy essentially imitates, to a degree, 18th century oratorio idioms. If she had done so a la Peter Schickele’s fictional P.D.Q. Bach, the results might have been a lot funnier. Instead, she treats the voices mostly in period style, but tosses a lot of dissonance into the orchestration as if to make sure everyone knows this is a contemporary piece. It’s not one thing or another, and none of it is very persuasive.

(On opening night, one of the violinists broke a string midway through the performance, but I don’t think my impression of the score would have changed much had that not occurred.)

One concept is clever and oddly effective, though -- Dunphy gives the role of Gonzales and all of the male senators to female soloists, but Sen. Diane Feinstein is written for a male singer. The latter assignment found Brady DelVecchio done up with bits of drag and hamming it up nicely on Friday night. The singing by Molly Young as Gonzales could have used more bite, but had a certain flair. Elizabeth Merrill as Sen. Leahy and Julie Bosworth as Sen. Cardin sounded proved especially vivid. Melinda O’Neal conducted.

Nelson’s barebones staging of the cantata has its witty touches, but is mostly too cutesy for its own good. The amateurish elements in the execution evident on Friday may smooth over as the run continues. In “Dido,” Nelson gets carried away with chairs as props; things look silly and forced a lot of the time, rather than illuminating. Still, the director focuses strongly enough on the central, very human tragedy in this brief opera, and the final, slow-fade moments register strongly.

On Friday, Emily Noel sang with considerable expressive warmth as Dido. Merrill was again a vibrant presence as Belinda. Jason Buckwalter sang sensitively as Aeneas. The Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir of Baltimore fulfilled its role handsomely; the blend, articulation and phrasing were all quite polished.

O’Neal shaped the score beautifully and drew nuanced playing from the period instrument ensemble. The remarkable eloquence of Purcell’s score could be savored at nearly every turn, and that’s reason enough to catch one of the remaining performances of this unusual double bill.

SUN FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

Comments

There is an added performance this weekend - Saturday February 12th at 8pm. Tickets are going fast so we want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to see it!

Tim, thank you for giving me so much credit for the nuanced playing of our period instrumentalists and for the beautifully shaped score! But colleagues Adam Pearl (harpsichord/organ/co-music director) and Daniel Boothe (principal violin) as well as Tim Nelson were very much involved in interpretive matters and surely must share this credit. They all worked tirelessly and with great expertise to make the Purcell stylistically vivid and communicative. – Melinda O'Neal

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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