In A Creepy Twist, Queen Dido Goes Deep Underground

As Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ is performed in the Catacombs under Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, witches torture a spirit (Liana Kleinman, dancing to her own choreography) whose movement echoes the tale. (Photos by Kevin Condon)
By Anne E. Johnson

BROOKLYN – Do ghosts enjoy early Baroque opera? Hopefully they do, since any spirits lingering in the Catacombs under Green-Wood Cemetery are currently a captive audience for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, seen June 5, in a production by Death of Classical as part of the Angel’s Share concert series.

It’s as spooky and odd an experience as one might expect. And the mood-setting begins significantly before the lights come up. Ticket-holders are invited to an hour-long reception and whiskey tasting – Angel’s Share is reportedly “the distiller’s term for whiskey that evaporates while maturing in the barrel, thus going to the angels” – in the elegantly appointed Modern Chapel near the cemetery’s main entrance. Much of the decor consists of candle-lit brass urns.

And then there’s a “procession” to the Catacombs, a walk of about 20 minutes over hills and past thousands of graves (a trolley is available for those who need it). The Catacombs, normally closed to the public, consist of a main chamber, 10 feet wide and 122 feet long, with an arched 11-foot ceiling. Doorways off either long wall lead to small crypt chambers. About halfway through the opera, it occurred to me that “offstage” here actually meant “into somebody’s crypt.”

Given the strange dimensions of the space, director Alek Shrader had quite a challenge to fit in an audience, small orchestra, and stage. The 120 spectators sat in chairs by twos and threes along either wall. About a third of the room was reserved for performers, with the instruments at the far end and the singers between orchestra and audience.

The live, rich acoustics were mostly a boon. Although the instruments weren’t visible behind the stage, each specific timbre was clearly audible. And the voices rang with satisfyingly colorful resonance but no distracting echo.

Authentic and delightful, soprano Molly Quinn, as Belinda, aced the period style.

On the other hand, the performers didn’t always seem aware of how their voices carried. At one point, two singers turned their bodies to pick up a prop, and the audience lost half their volume. In choral sections, individual voices randomly stood out for a couple of notes. This was especially a problem in the chorus following Belinda’s aria, “Pursue thy conquest, Love.”

Belinda, Queen Dido’s lady-in-waiting, was played by soprano Molly Quinn, who stood out as the only cast member with historical performance chops. Her bright voice and skilled ornamentation were a delight, but they did not match the other vocal styles being used.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as regal Dido, who chooses death.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack played Dido with a regal manner and darkly powerful voice that had more vibrato than Baroque music needs. Her singing was best in her death scene, the famous aria “Thy hand, Belinda,” in which she demonstrated great control over her diminishing voice as life left her character.

Playing Aeneas as affable, prideful, and maybe not so bright, baritone Paul La Rosa was a winning presence and sang well. And he was the best equipped to handle an unusual aspect of this production: Besides the usual 1688 libretto by Nahum Tate, Shrader interspersed fragments of Christopher Marlowe’s  1593 play Dido, Queen of Carthage. The addition of these spoken scenes, mostly in iambic pentameter, was a dramaturgically sound choice. The Tate libretto is sparse, to put it mildly, so Marlowe’s words enriched the characters’ relationships and increased the usual hour-long running time by 10 or 15 minutes.

Bass Paul Greene-Dennis suffered most from this literary mash-up. His character, Dido’s suitor King Iarbas, does not exist in Tate’s script, only in Marlowe’s, so Greene-Dennis spoke all his lines (when not singing in the chorus), always in a stilted, over-loud manner and with impenetrable diction. The other singers managed better, but only La Rosa seemed comfortable declaiming spoken text at a professional level.

Liana Kleinman served as the one-person ‘corps de ballet’ in the production directed by Alek Shrader.

A more successful directorial decision was the presence of Liana Kleinman, who danced her own choreography throughout the piece. Rather than the typical corps de ballet providing Baroque movement during instrumental passages — a luxury this narrow space could not allow — Kleinman danced alone, helping to tell the story through graceful and energetic balletic and modern-dance language. Fay Eva’s costumes intensified the dancer’s effectiveness: Kleinman’s all-white leotard was swapped for one half-covered in black handprints after she was tortured by the witches who aim to destroy Dido’s happiness.

Sorceress Vanessa Cariddi (center) and wayward sisters Erin Moll and Alyssa Martin employ their witchcraft.

The Sorceress was mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi, haunting in an angular black gown and hood, and with thick black eyebrows freezing her face into a soul-drilling stare. As her two witchy minions, Alyssa Martin and Erin Moll imbued their roles with humorous swoops and cackles. The lighting by Tláloc López-Watermann added to the creepiness, especially when orange ceiling lights drenched Cariddi’s black dress in her Act II aria, “Wayward sisters, you that fright.”

From the harpsichord, Elliot Figg conducted a small string ensemble with unhurried clarity, paying particular attention to well-shaped cadential motions and the ubiquitous “Scottish snap” syncopation Purcell loved so much. Cellist Anthony Albrecht kept the bass lines steady yet fluidly emotive, an essential task to prevent Purcell’s favored ground-bass structure from sounding repetitive. On viola da gamba, Arnie Tanimoto filled out the harmony with historically authentic improvisation. Unfortunately, the singers mostly couldn’t see their conductor, a situation that led to a few moments of ragged ensemble singing during more complex contrapuntal sections.

Dido and Aeneas runs through June 8. The Angel’s Share series continues with baroque ensemble Voyage Sonique on June 24-26 and pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin on Sept. 24-27.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.

Baritone Paul La Rosa, center, as the affable, prideful heartbreaker Aeneas, was a winning presence.