By Paulina Gajewski
Conservatory opera students captivated the audience by returning to the classics with a fully staged production of “Dido and Aeneas” in the Don Buchwald Theater on Friday, Mar. 24. The three-act opera was overseen by Artistic Director Isabel Milenski, who holds numerous national directing credits at Carnegie Hall and universities across the globe. Alongside Milenski was Music Director Violetta Zabbi, who has been involved in over a hundred different opera projects across New York City.
The opera singers were accompanied by the symphonic Brooklyn College Choir, directed by Tami Petty, winner of the Joy in Singing International Competition and professor at musical faculties in New York and New Jersey. The choir’s voices guaranteed that the songs always felt full and complete.
Among the choir were sopranos and altos, along with tenors and basses, which enriched the performance. No musical performance is complete without the collateral orchestra that included accompaniments in violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, as well as keyboard, which provided acoustic support whether the melody was light and quick, or deep and slow.
Henry Purcell, composer of the opera’s “Dido and Aeneas,” embarked on a variation of the original myth regarding the two titular characters. The myth is derived from the “Aeneid,” a work of the great Roman poet Virgil. The noble hero Aeneas journeys to Italy, where he is fated to be the original ancestor of Rome.
Due to the self-fulfilling machinations of the Greek gods, Aeneas lands on the coast of Africa and meets Dido, the ruler of Carthage, whose husband had recently departed. Dido’s heart is set aflame with passionate love for Aeneas through the will of Cupid.
The events that occur on the earthly realm are direct consequences of the quarrels that occur on the celestial realm. The queen and king of the gods, Hera and Zeus respectively, are torn in their decisions regarding Aeneas’ fate. Hera devises for Aeneas to remain in Carthage as Dido’s lover, and in response, Zeus reminds Aeneas his destiny lies in Italy.
Destiny in myth is inevitable, and so Aeneas tells Dido of his departure. The queen of Carthage, heartbroken and abandoned now twice, prepares for her own death.
Purcell’s opera revolves around the arrival and departure of Aeneas, whose actions are manipulated by a sorcerer and his witches instead of divine intervention. The show proved to be a spectacle for the full house of guests, executing musical and visual facets with operatic theatrics.
As the audience members were seated, eyes were drawn to the simple yet effective stage settings, consisting of a mountainous landscape for the background and a stone pedestal. The choir marched in one by one, taking their place to the right of the stage.
Act One began with a dim stage. Dido, played by Tomoko Nago Kern, was surrounded by her attendants as she commenced her tune of mourning. Still awash with grief, Dido was conflicted regarding her feelings towards her new guest, Aeneas, played by Mark Berkowitz. Dido’s handmaidens, consisting of performers Jessica Bobadilla, Xiaoyu Gao, Qingran Yang, Alyssa Clayton, and Zhao Li, were dressed in all white to provide a stark contrast to her black mourning robes.
As a representation of Dido’s doubt, the handmaidens undulated across the stage while handmaiden Belinda (Reina Muñiz) attempted to raise Dido’s spirits with the promise that love will cure her grief. Her black robes were switched out for robes of striking purple. As Aeneas entered the court, the handmaidens took the form of Cupid’s arrow to exemplify the divine course of their love.
The orchestra ushered in a giddy and amorous tune as the two lovers embraced, finalizing the first act.
Beginning with intense, thunderous instrumentals, the second act mimicked a dreary storm. The stage lighting switched to deep blues and purples as the silhouettes of three menacing figures sauntered to the forefront. The sorcerer (Joe Damon Chappel) was escorted with the two witches played by Patricia Posluszna and Chen Philips. They struck fear in the audience with frightening, unintelligible gasps and yelps, accompanied by the high-pitched laughter of the choir.
The witches meandered across the stage to deep and drawn-out instrumentals as the sorcerer sang about his forlorn plan to separate Aeneas from Dido. One of the sorcerer’s spirits would disguise themselves as a god and inform Aeneas of his destiny, forcing him to leave Dido.
The lighting drastically shifted as the storm cleared. As Dido, Aeneas, and their hunting party gallivanted onto the stage, the sorcerer and his witches deserted it. The bright white robes of the hunting party were now decorated by extravagant red ribbons. This scene of entertainment and pleasure, however, was soon punctuated by the hints of an oncoming storm that separated the two lovers, leaving Aeneas vulnerable to the sorcerer’s plan.
As Aeneas was told the news from the faux god, he launched into a powerful lament damning his own destiny. This was the first scene where a character existed completely alone on the stage, embedding the idea that his fate is his alone.
Resembling the vastness of the sky at sea, the background morphed into a dazzling blue at the beginning of Act Three. The bleak tone left over from Aeneas’ song deviated to a ditzy and light one with the arrival of sailors as the performers were led by David Thomas Cronin. Preparing for their departure, they danced with the ladies on the shore, embodying naïve and hopeful flings.
Dido and Aeneas did not share the same privilege. As Aeneas announced his departure, Dido rebuked him. His guilt compelled him to declare that he will defy fate for her, but Dido had already set her mind on her abandonment and forced him to leave.
Overwhelmed by her own grief, Dido sang a heart-wrenching song, pleading for her fate to be forgotten. Tomoko Nago-Kern proved that opera is a physical art rather than a stationary one, with her enchanting movements expressing her pain along with her voice. The stage transformed into a burning red as Dido and her handmaidens prepared the mode of her own death: a pyre. The opera began with a love that set her heart aflame, though in the end it was that same passionate love that led to her demise.
Returning to the classics proves to be a reminder that the themes of humanity will run their course for eternity, with “Dido and Aeneas” telling the age-old tale of tragic love and destiny.