Dido and Belinda is the first show from Opera Q and Cor Unum Ensemble. It’s a reimagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from Belinda’s perspective and with a decidedly gender fluid twist. Nathum Tate’s libretto is extended by spoken passages which give Belinda’s take on the story and make it very much a story of the two sisters. The back story is Dido’s flight from Tyre rather than Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The future is about Belinda as Queen of Carthage not Aeneas’ “promised Empire”. It works pretty well though I have reservations about interpolating text in the final scene. I think Belinda’s accession as Dido’s successor could have been conveyed without interrupting some of the most sublime music ever composed. That’s a minor quibble though in a story concept that works.
I met yesterday with Ryan McDonald and Camille Rogers to discuss their new project, OperaQ, and its upcoming show Dido and Belinda. The driving idea is that opera needs a space for “queer people to tell queer stories to queer people”. Now I’m sure many peopl’s initial reaction would be close to mine along the lines of “surely there’s no shortage of gay people in the opera world?”; which is ,of course, true but not really the point. Gender presentation in opera is highly conventional, both on and off the stage. There are strong stereotypes about “masculine” heroes. Can an overtly gay man get cast as Otello (or even Hadrian)? There are equally strong stereotypes about how female singers should present. Everybody is supposed to be glamorous à la Maria Callas, an attitude that was brilliantly taken apart in Teiya Kasahara’s Queer of the Night. Transgender issues add another layer onto this where, paradoxically perhaps, operas traditions of cross dressing confine rather than create space for transgender expression. So, opera, lots of queers but not much queerness?
Todays concert in the UoT’s Thursdays at Noon series at Walter Hall was given by baritone Giles Tomkins, soprano Elizabeth McDonald, pianist Kathryn Tremills, clarinettist Peter Stoll and cellist Lydia Munchinsky. The music they played was sometimes in familiar combinations of players and sometimes very much not. Hence the title.
This year’s UoT Opera student composed opera sets a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano based on a 1909 story by EM Forster. It’s a dystopian sci-fi story and OK as these things go though one suspects it felt a whole lot more original in 1909. Basically, humanity is living underground in pods with limited face to face interaction. Life is mediated by “The Machine” which increasingly has become an object of veneration as well as utility. The principal characters are Vashti, a believer, and her rebellious son Kuno who is prone to make illegal excursions to the planet surface where, he realises, there are still people living. It’s a bit like Logan’s Run but not as sexy. The Relationship between the two breaks down over their belief systems until The Machine goes belly up at which point there is a reconciliation before everyone dies. Along the way there’s a fair bit of heavy handed philosophising by the narrator and chorus.
Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an awkward work for an opera company. It’s been said, rightly I think, that one can/must situate it in a triangle of which the vertices are opera, musical theatre and Brechtian theatre. John Doyle’s 2007 production for Los Angeles Opera is strong on the opera and musical theatre dimensions but decidedly unBrechtian. Despite a good idiomatic translation by Michael Feingold this production seems unwilling to skewer capitalism in the manner Brecht intended. It’s the polar opposite of the Salzburg recording that left no Marxist cliche unexplored. Maybe it’s a failure of nerve. Maybe capitalism in LA is already such a parody of itself that further skewering is impossible. Who knows? Even Act 2, which is all about the commoditization of basic human pleasures doesn’t really fire. Sure we get excess and commoditized sex but there’s no sense that the commoditization is dehumanising or transgressive. Sex for sale? Of course! It does get a bit darker in the final act with the trial and execution of Jimmy and finishes strongly on “Still we only built this Mahagonny” but by then it’s very much too little, too late. The lack of edge is reinforced by the orchestra under James Conlon. It’s all just too civilized. There’s none of the spiky dissonance one is used to in the score and the brass, in particular, sound like they are playing in the Palm Court of the Hilton.
It’s a shame because the singing performances are mostly very good. The leading female roles are played by Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald who both have Broadway backgrounds. LuPone sounds like that’s where she’s from too though McDonald manages a much wider range and pretty much steals the show. It helps that she is very good looking and practically naked. The guys are mostly from opera backgrounds; notably Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre and Donnie Ray Albert as Trinity Moses. Both sing well and idiomatically. The sets are sort of Vegas lite with none of the inexplicable weirdness of the Salzburg production but not much interest either. Again things look up a bit in the last act with effective use of a giant video screen in the trial scene and moving slogans over the finale. Blocking is very Broadway, especially the big chorus numbers that look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Brecht and Weill.
Video direction is by Gary Halvorson and it’s judicious. There’s often not much set to look at so we might as well have close ups of Ms. McDonald. The technical package is solid. The picture is high quality 16:9. The sound choices are PCM stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is nicely balanced and clear There are French, German and Spanish subtitles. There’s a useful essay in the booklet which gives full track listings and a 20 minute interview with the director.