Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle, LA Opera

These strangely paired short operas display the best (and worst) of the director's concepts.

Composed by Henry Purcell/Bela Bartok

Directed by Barrie Kosky

Conducted by Steven Sloane

With Paula Murrihy, Liam Bonner/Robert Hayward, Claudia Mahnke

LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Oct. 25 – Nov. 15, 2014

Why pair Baroque "Dido and Aeneas" with Bartok's 20th century "Bluebeard’s Castle"? According to program notes by director Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin they have much in common. His most convincing argument is that they are "two operas about a man and a woman." Hmmm, seems to me that describes a large percentage of the operas out there. A more convincing reason lies in the logistics; each is but an hour long and “Bluebeard” has but a two-person cast.

In the current Music Center presentation, dessert is definitely the first course. You may recall last year's "Magic Flute," which was also directed by Kosky. It was an imaginative, crisp, and visual as well as musical treat. Purcell composed "Dido and Aeneas" around 1688. It is the kind of score and book that can easily creak to modern ears and eyes. Kosky does not fight the material. He pushes static to the extreme; the result is edgy and contemporary, humorous and ultimately moving. Let me try to explain. The entire set is deceptively simple and pushed to the front of the stage. A full chorus, with Dido (Paula Murrihy) in the middle, is seated on a large white bench stretching from wing to wing. It sits against a corrugated backdrop. The marvelously costumed chorus sits with legs slightly spread, hands splayed upon knees as in primitive paintings or early photos where subjects dared not move during a several second-long exposure. Are they going to just sit there? Not hardly. Not only can Grant Gershon's chorus sing, it can act and has been rehearsed to perfection. It is amazing how entertaining 28 people can be while barely moving for quite some time and how agile they are when the action breaks loose. The orchestra, with four lute-like theorbos, is prominently placed at almost stage level. Even they exit within the theatric framework.

The story comes from Virgil's “Aeneid.” Very briefly: First you have your widowed queen of Carthage, Dido. Having sworn never to marry again, she has inconveniently fallen in love with Trojan Prince Aeneas (Liam Bonner), fleeing from the fallen Troy. Her sister, Belinda (Kateryna Kasper), points out the political advantages and inconvenience becomes convenience. All is celebration. However, this being days of yore, three sorceresses — played with gusto by three of the most zealous countertenors you will ever see: John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen, and Darryl Taylor — brew up a storm and falsely tell Aeneas he must return to sea to found a new Troy. Therein lies the tragic nugget. Aeneas heads the call. Dido is devastated. He changes his mind. She protests and says it does not count as he was prepared to leave. He reluctantly goes. She dissolves in grief, "When I am laid in earth." As up for the romp as Murrihy was before, her portrayal of grief in the end is profound. She and Bonner are well cast and play beautifully off each other. Her sobs at the final curtain effectively pull the audience into her grief.

OK. Enough of this happy talk. What about "Bluebeard"? I was afraid you would ask. No complaints about the music. The LA Opera orchestra easily slides from Baroque to modern, and Steven Sloane conducts with gusto. To cut to the chase: I would have preferred to have watched the performance as a concert opera rather than the tortured minimalist design Kosky dreamed up for this production.

A large, white, circular, raked stage makes seven complete rotations during the hour, signifying the seven locked and terrifying doors in Bluebeard's castle. The two singers trudge up the resulting angle (which has been mopped with Coke so it is sticky and they will not slip). It seems to be taxing enough that there is no nuance in any of their actions. The lighting is brutal. There have been rumors about what Judith will find in Bluebeard's dark castle, and she is determined, despite ominous warnings, to shed light by opening the doors. Like so many women she is convinced that she has the power to change her intended for the better. That is, she is convinced until they come to the last door that holds his four previous wives. Four avatar couples wander on the stage, contributing little to the production. Kosky is a master with projection. He rightfully prides himself in not repeating a style; however, it does seem he could have done much more using that medium than minimalism for minimalism’s sake.

How best to approach these strangely paired productions? Clearly when Kosky is on he is unbeatable. "Dido and Aeneas" is a definite winner, as was his "Magic Flute." I would say, don't miss it. Two out of three is not bad odds, after all. As for "Bluebeard's Castle," maybe the best approach would be to allow yourself that drink at intermission and let yourself drift during the performance. Just allow the music to wash over you and do not worry about the production.

Karen Weinstein

Los Angeles ,

Weinstein is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the medical school at UCLA. She also holds a master’s degree in Urban Studies and has a strong interest in history and architecture, as well as the theater.