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Of the double bill taking the stage at L.A. Opera this weekend composer Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, the Greco-Roman myth about the son of Venus’ tragic love affair, represents one of opera’s earliest narratives, while Bluebeard’s Castle, Bela Bartok’s only opera, is about a newlywed bride who learns her husband’s darkest secrets. Together they stand at opposite ends of opera’s timeline yet are united in their theme of love gone wrong. Directed by Berlin Opera’s Barrie Kosky, this inspired coupling offers audiences a chance to see two rarely performed short pieces through November 15.
With abbreviated running times, the two represent a conundrum for programmers, which is why a pairing makes perfect sense. In Berlin, Kosky directed ‘Dido’ along with Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, but with the latter’s comic overtones and unrelated theme, it was a marriage of convenience rather than harmony. When he learned that conductor Constantinos Carydis had paired ‘Dido’ with ‘Bluebeard’, he immediately grasped the thematic relationship between them, premiering the work with the Frankfurt Opera in a 2013 Edinburgh production.
Dido and Aeneas are lovers torn apart by witches who trick him into leaving the Carthage queen in order to establish a new city of Troy following his defeat in the Trojan War. With his departure, Dido, who has given herself entirely to her love for Aeneas, sees no way forward but suicide.
Bluebeard’s Castle centers on Judith, who returns with her new husband to his palatial home where his darkest secrets are made plain by the opening of a series of doors. The first hides a blood stained torture chamber, the second a weapons cache and so one until the seventh and final portal through which emerge Bluebeard’s three former wives, silent and ghostly on a path of moonlight.
“As I worked on them I realized there are a number of very strong connections between the two pieces even though the two productions have completely different sets and costumes and two completely different worlds,” Kosky tells THR. “Dido & Aeneas, the entire piece hinges on the fact that Aeneas is going to leave her. And her waiting for him to come back and then waiting for her death, this idea of waiting, arriving, departure from life at the end, is a very strong thing. Then in ‘Bluebeard’ you get the opposite, you get someone arriving and not being able to leave. You have a spiritual and metaphysical level of what arriving and departure means in terms of love, and of life and death.”
‘Dido’ premiered in unusual fashion in 1688 at London school for girls and was produced again in 1700 after Purcell’s death, but disappeared from the stage until 1895, just 16 years before Bartok composed ‘Bluebeard’. The two leads will be sung by mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (from the Frankfurt production) and tenor Liam Bonner, who audiences will remember from L.A. Opera’s last season production of Billy Budd. In a daring move, portraying the three witches will be three men, American counter tenors, John Holiday, Darryl Taylor and G. Thomas Allen, making their L.A. Opera debut. ‘Bluebeard’ stars baritone Robert Hayward (also from the Frankfurt production) and mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke, under the baton of Steven Sloane.
The two operas may share thematic elements, but in keeping with director Kosky’s unique vision, will vary considerably in style. ‘Dido’ will feature a wall set so far downstage it nearly aligns with the proscenium, forcing the performers into a cramped space only a few feet from the orchestra pit. “It’s almost like looking at a two-dimensional frieze,” explains Kosky, who co-directed last season’s wildly popular production of The Magic Flute. “The costuming is sort of fantastical, sort of baroque. It’s not contemporary but it’s not historical either. It’s very stripped back and no one can leave except till the very end which is a heart breaking moment where Dido is left alone to die.”
After the claustrophobic feel of ‘Dido’, the curtain will rise on a large empty turntable where Bluebeard’s Castle will play out. While the seven doors are what drive the plot, there won’t be any doors in Kosky’s production. “I want the walls and the doors to be the human body and I want her to open him up and him to open her up,” he explains about a production described as minimalist in style, but maximalist in emotion. “They go through a sort of ritual of love and what they create through light and their voices and their bodies is quite extraordinary.”
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