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
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