Saturday night I saw the NEC (New England Conservatory) Opera Department’s spring opera double-bill, the Prologue from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (in English) and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Ariadne is an interesting opera with lots of wonderful music. But, it is a bit of an odd-ball in that there are two halves which can stand pretty much completely on their own. The first half is the Prologue – it is humorous and lively with lots of action. The second half is an opera seria with intermingled bits of opera buffo. The second half has the famous aria Zerbinetta’s Monologue (check out Kathleen Battle’s version on YouTube). And that aria is probably the main reason why NEC didn’t do the second half – it is a 12-minute long showcase of vocal technique only for very strong – and very brave – lyric sopranos. NEC’s opera students include undergraduates and other young singers who aren’t quite ready for that sort of piece. The Prologue has a main character (the Composer) which is usually done by a mezzo-soprano with an extended low range – or at least that’s the way I remember it. NEC didn’t have a quite that voice in the part, but a very vivacious and strong soprano, Mollie Adams, who captured our interest and put on a fine vocal and acting performance.
Dido opened with a bit of stage flash. The Ariadne set was left on stage. Robed figures came out and took off some of the bits and pieces while at the same time, the remainder of the set was raised up out of sight revealing a stark gray set with a chorus of gray-robed figures with masks. As the chorus members pushed risers forward, they tilted their heads down so we could see the masks – it looked like a small army of weird masked creatures shambling toward the audience – a very effective bit of stagecraft.
The opera was done very nicely – kudos to the director, conductor, and orchestra as well as the singers. The evening ended with the hauntingly beautiful aria Dido’s Lament. It is one of those famous arias that most classical music fans have heard somewhere – even if they haven’t (very likely) seen the opera. Cristina Bakhoum did a very nice job with a piece that isn’t as easy as it may sound.
All in all, the evening was a very pleasant one. The NEC student operas are not quite in the same league as the BU Opera Program’s operas – understandable given the differences between the two programs – but still a great value for your operatic dollar ($20!) and well worth the effort to attend.
Here’s Dido’s Lament sung by the incomparable Jessye Norman (I could listen to this a thousand times and not get tired of it):