BOSTON – The early-music ensemble Boston Camerata, innovators in performance of medieval through early Baroque music since their founding in 1954, was planning a party, but COVID-19 got in the way. They had scheduled a run of live performances of Henry Purcell’s only opera, Dido and Aeneas, to mark 40 years since the Camerata released the first-ever recording of the work on period instruments. Like pretty much everything else in 2020, that plan had to be rethought.
The production that music director Anne Azéma, Camerata’s artistic director since 2008, and designer Peter Torpey have developed is a digital presentation called Dido and Aeneas, An Opera for Distanced Lovers, which can be viewed Nov. 14-29. (For tickets, go here.) The stream will include a pre-concert presentation by Ellen T. Harris, a musicologist at MIT and author of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (Oxford University Press).
The anniversary of the Dido recording was only one impetus for this project. Dido was part of a planned 2020-21 docket focused on strong female characters, to be promoted under the hashtag #SheToo. Azéma thinks Dido fit in perfectly. “It’s a superb early opera, dedicated to the fate of an abandoned woman,” she said in an interview with Classical Voice North America. “For me, it was a powerful must.”
Thanks to pandemic restrictions, Azéma and Torpey had a chance to try something they had long been curious about – making a film. The pair has collaborated on several works for the Camerata, including The Play of Daniel and The Night’s Tale. “For a couple years,” says Torpey, “we’ve been talking about the idea of what would it be like to take one of the productions and translate it into film, but we never had quite the right opportunity.”
Necessity finally pushed them into experimentation. “When the pandemic hit, we needed to find other ways of making music,” says Azéma. While she wasn’t quite sure what to do, she knew that Zoom was not the answer. “Very early on, we completely eliminated the idea of the ad hoc performance, at home in our PJs.”
She says that she and Torpey decided on a division of imagery and sound “on the theme of distance and proximity – the cast distant, even though together with the band; the presence of what we call ‘silent films,’ where we have filmed the protagonists outside, masked, in another level of narrative; and the virtual aspect of putting all these together.”
Torpey agrees that distance became a fundamental theme. “We had restrictions on how to shoot it, how far cameras had to be from people, and the number of people in the hall. With the camera we could make it seem like people were in closer proximity than they actually were. So we used the filmmaking vocabulary to create spaces that weren’t physically possible.”
Throughout development, they kept the audience in mind. “We created this immersive world that would bring back some of the intimacy that is lost by not being in Pickman Hall,” says Torpey, referring to the venue at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Mass., where the production was partly filmed. They also tried to draw a parallel between the world of the stage and the outside world, hoping to show that the characters “exist in these two worlds, and so the actions that happen on location, which we shot outdoors, are repeated in the hall, and we kind of move up and back,” Torpey says.
Azéma says their approach to shooting each section was always guided by the music. “I trust Peter’s taste and the fact that he’s a poet with the lights and with a camera,” she says. Torpey agrees that music is the starting point. “I will listen to a recording and go through the score and mark it up with my own notations, and Anne has a lot of ideas for what the content or the staging would be very early on. It’s the choreography of the focus of attention. Where are we looking at any point in time?”
Torpey was involved at every stage of the process: “I was there in the early part of rehearsals, acting like the camera, moving around as they’re blocking and thinking about what’s the best vantage point to capture what we want.” Sound was a paramount concern, so they brought in sound engineer David Griesinger to oversee that aspect of the production.
Rehearsals were done live, with everyone wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. The masks were removed only for filming. Azéma took the safety precautions as a mandate: “Everybody has been extremely disciplined, ‘bubbling up,’ separating from the world. This is a serious issue. It’s not a matter of us flinging our desperate artistic needs in the face of something that’s a tragedy.”
Once they started shooting, they used distinct methods for the different sections. The outdoor material, Torpey says, “was more like a regular film shoot. We’d have four or five takes of each shot.” The shoots in Pickman Hall, however, had to take the elements of ensemble performance into account. “We needed to maintain the sync between the video and the audio. And the tempo could vary every time we ran it. So those are very long shots where it becomes more of a choreography of how the camera has to move in real time as the music is progressing.”
This was hardly a standard opera production for the singers. “Some of the cast may not have had experience shooting a film,” Torpey says, “so it took some thinking about and discussion: How do you relate to the camera, and how do you perform when you’re being seen from a vantage that you might not be used to from onstage?”
In Azéma’s eyes, it was about being each other’s audience. “We had a powerful conversation among us, with the team performing for each other,” she says. “In such an intent way, you raise a very high level of drama.” She had no doubt that the soloists and the student chorus from Longy were up for the challenge. “What’s immensely moving to me is the quality of the singing that we have in this team. Some of them have worked with me for years, such as Camila [Parias as Belinda], who has such a superb voice. Tahanee [Aluwihare as Dido] has a wonderful presence. Jordan Weatherston Pitts, who was our Daniel in The Play of Daniel, is a spooky sorcerer, I have to say. And Luke Scott is a perfect Aeneas.
“These young singers are able to understand the fact that the passion in the singing is not achieved by how loud the voice-o-meter can go, but how delicate the balance is between their own voice, their own color, the metric, the poetry, and the conversation with the band. It’s a joy to see that happen.”
In her role as musical director, Azéma acknowledges the importance of the Camerata’s seminal Dido recording. “It caused a big stir and heavily influenced later versions by other groups,” she says. ” Yet she also notes that the understanding of Purcell’s music has not remained static in those intervening decades: “It’s a little bit like the way you clean a painting that’s been smoked and fogged by years of bad varnish. The early-music movement has sort of cleaned up the painting.”
The reduced work force necessitated by COVID turned out to be to their advantage, she says. “We use four strings and a harpsichord. The ’79 recording had other instrumentation choices to bring out the French quality with an oboe and a flute, but we are to the bare bones because of COVID. And I love it. To me, it’s as powerful as Wagner.”
Torpey and Azéma both see the quality of the music itself is the prime mover for any successful production. “I love early music,” says Torpey. “The kinds of colors and the complexity of early music and the visual cadence that goes along with that is very much affected by the music, and I do feel that it is distinct from more contemporary operas.”
“Purcell’s music is so extraordinary,” says Azéma, “Look at the inner voices of the instrumental pieces, for example. It’s fantastic stuff. And you have the libretto from Nahum Tate, which chooses only some vignettes of the story, not the full Virgil Aeneid Book IV. These powerful vignettes are a world in themselves. How could we not give it all the passion that we have as musicians?”
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.