Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a grief-stricken Baroque masterpiece. A new production of the opera aims to explore its dark themes in a subterranean context, by staging it in the catacombs of New York City’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
For the director, Alek Shrader, this performance space adds an eerie context to Purcell’s late 17th-Century opera, which tells the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her love for the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who ultimately abandons her. “We assumed that the space would imbue its own spookiness to the production,” says Shrader, a tenor who is making his professional debut as director.
“We kept it very simple but effective. We’re not necessarily forcing anything macabre or some kind of feeling onto the production, we’re going to let the catacombs do that. And I think that’ll be all the ambience one needs.”
Also unusual, this production incorporates spoken dialogue from Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, which was written about 100 years prior to the opera. Shrader says he cherry-picked bits and pieces of Marlowe’s play, “which restore some characters of the original legend, and give Dido those relationships back that are really vital for her ultimate decision to end her life.”
Specifically, the character of King Iarbus is introduced. He is also in love with Dido, who rejects his advances in favor of Aeneas. Later on, when Aeneas leaves Dido and she is heartbroken (and sings the famous lament, “When I am laid in earth”), her motivation to end her life is given new rationale, says Shrader.
“With Iarbus restored, she’s being forced into a life she doesn’t want, and instead of choosing to have her will taken from her, she sort of defeats all opponents by choosing how to live her life, which is to end it. And so she’s not really a heartbroken victim, it’s a very strong and honorable move.”
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack will sing the role of Dido, with Paul La Rosa as Aeneas, Molly Quinn as Belinda, and Vanessa Cariddi as the Sorceress. The opera will feature a Baroque string ensemble led from the harpsichord by Music Director Elliot Figg.
This production kicks off season two of The Angel’s Share, a series of opera and chamber music concerts that take place in Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs. "I wanted to create a new different experience around classical music, something that people would find exciting and welcoming, whether or not they were connoisseurs of Classical Music or Opera," says Andrew Ousley, a publicist and founder of Unison Media, which produces this concert series. Further productions this season will include the period ensemble Voyage Sonique, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.