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Enea e Didone (Marte e Venere); affresco romano da Pompei, Casa del Citarista
19 Apr 2009

Cavalli’s La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn

Perhaps I’d better just describe what I experienced, Captain.

Francesco Cavalli: La Didone

Dido: Hai-Ting Chinn; Aeneas: John Young; Neptune, Jarbas, etc.: Andrew Nolen; Juno, Anna, Voice of Cupid, etc.: Kamala Sankaram; Ghost of Sychaeus: Hank Heijink. With Ari Flakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk and Judson Williams. Conducted by Jennifer Griesbach. Staged by The Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse, DUMBO (Brooklyn).

Above: Enea e Didone (Marte e Venere); affresco romano da Pompei, Casa del Citarista


It wasn’t something I can summarize in the ways we were taught at the Space Academy. It was entirely outside the range of human experience in this department. The senses of “sight” and “hearing” don’t really cover the phenomena. Not all the phenomena.

There were monitors, Captain — monitors, everywhere! Two at the back of the stage showed a forgotten (well, I never head of it!) 1965 Italian sci-fi-horror flick dubbed into English, with cheap-o special effects and a predictable Twilight Zone-style switcheroo ending. And when I say they showed it on two monitors, I should mention that they had fixed it so one monitor showed it left-to-right, the other right-to-left (mirror images, you see), and they were side by side, so intimate scenes between two people seemed to involve four, and guys who were alone on the eerie planet seemed to have doppelgangers. Two other monitors near the front showed props that were seen, discussed, important to the story (swords, daggers, mirrors, anti-meteor colliders) but not actually present on the stage. When Queen Dido (did I mention her? Well, she was very much there, impersonated and sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, who has a lovely clear sexy soprano without that prissy baroque groove), overwhelmed with guilt, looked in a mirror, it was a monitor that showed her face decaying before our eyes (and, presumably, hers), that is: the mirror showed us what she was thinking!

In front of the monitors showing the movie (which was also performed by live actors), singers with genuine operatic voices (it was difficult to tell if they were enhanced or not — usually, I thought, not) performing Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera, La Didone. That’s right, Captain — arms and the man they sang. Aeneas, son of Venus, fleeing the destruction of Troy, crossed the seas on winds summoned by the vengeful goddess Juno (can immortal beings feel such wrath? — you tell me), to be shipwrecked near the city of Carthage, where he won the love of the widowed Queen Dido, aided her in a war against her rejected suitor, King Jarbas (driven mad by love), seduced her (with his brother Cupid’s help) during a wild boar hunt (shown), and then left for Italy, abandoning the poor lady (at Jove’s command, because fun’s fun but someone has to found the Roman Empire), whereupon Dido contemplates suicide. Happily (in this version, unlike Vergil’s, and Purcell’s, and Berlioz’s, with which you may be more familiar), the sword is only an image on a monitor, so Dido is rescued by King Jarbas, and they defy the Fates, the gods, the poets, and live happily ever after. (The ending of the background movie, Terrore nello spazio, or Planet of the Vampires, isn’t quite so happy, but it does tie in to the refugees-colonizing-the-locals theme.)

Stage right was a pit band — the usual suspects — keyboards, theorbo, accordion, electric ukulele, throbbing feedback that sometimes (especially when gods were singing — you know, Juno, Jove, Neptune — gods, goddammit!) threatened to drown out the music, but the gods all had microphones so in fact they could be heard through the jumble. Anyway who expects gods to be comprehensible? Even in outer space? And once, when Cupid took the form of Ascanius and sat in Dido’s lap, enabling him to wound her with the dart of love (for his brother Aeneas), an actor (Ari Flakos, who was also the starship captain) played the cherub while a soprano (Kamala Sankaram) sang his music in little-boy voice.

There were two sets of surtitles: one the text of the opera as it was being sung, the other the text of the movie as it was being spoken, looped, repeated, played with. The opera text, I’m glad to say, was sung “straight.” Sometimes singers spoke lines from the film (and even began to play characters in it); sometimes actors spoke lines from the opera (and even began to play characters in that). It was easy to keep the two sets of performers and the two sets of titles from getting mixed up, if you knew both stories. I mean, most of us read Vergil’s Aeniad in Space Cadet School, right? But who remembers that stupid movie? However, Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, as Mrs. Shaw, my old Flight Training Instructor, used to say.

Among the singers, the standout was certainly Hai-Ting Chinn in the title role — I also have fond memories of her Poppaea last summer at the Poisson Rouge (that asteroid we landed on in Greenwich Village, Captain). She has a curiously vibrato-less sound in a voice of great beauty, and she is a fine actress — I would like to hear what she can do without microphones and over a real orchestra. Tenor John Young made a worthy, sexy Aeneas and Andrew Nolen’s voice, difficult to appreciate when he sang basso deities through microphones, was also well deployed as a love-maddened countertenor Jarbas. (I know countertenors all have deeper voices when not singing, but I don’t think I’ve heard one use both voices to sing in the same performance before.) Kamala Sankaram has a character soprano, more tricky than attractive, but she can play the accordion too. Other performers included Scott Shepherd as an identity-wracked spaceman, Ari Flakos as the pensive captain, Hank Heijink (what a great name!) as the ghost of Dido’s husband, and the Wooster Group’s ever-deadpan first lady, Kate Valk, strolling in and out of jokes and genres with her usual grave laughter. Jennifer Griesbach appears to have been in charge of the musical side of things, and there was so much beauty in the score that the distractions only seemed to enhance it.

The experience was enjoyable on many different sensual planes, but — this sort of thing could get out of hand. These creatures — do we understand what their intentions are? They may be feeding on our inner, human craving for opera in ways scientists do not perfectly comprehend. If we do not take a firm stand, they may absorb us, control us, rewire us, detach us from our original natures, create a new sort of art-work of the future. This could be the look of opera in ages to come. This could be the end of music-drama as we know it.

Fact is, Captain — I’m afraid. Do you hear something — strange?

John Yohalem

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