Review: Mark Morris Dance Group’s fabulous “Dido and Aeneas”

Mark Morris’ danced opera “Dido and Aeneas” is a tour de force of late 20th century artistic storytelling, using Henry Purcell’s 1689 musical composition, which is a partial retelling of Virgil’s “Aeneid. It is a riveting assemblage, one that smashes and rewrites stylistic boundaries.

The hour-long piece—it’s done far too soon—had only its second local engagement this weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, presented by the Philharmonic Society.

For years after “Dido’s” 1989 premiere, Morris portrayed the work’s signature oppositional roles of good Queen Dido and the evil Sorceress. On Friday evening, the musically keen choreographer was in the pit conducting the outstanding Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra of Long Beach, five excellent soloists, and the marvelous Bob Cole Chamber Choir from Cal State Long Beach.

Twelve members of the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group took on multiple characters in this tale of the Carthaginian monarch and her consuming love for the Trojan hero. Aside from the two leads, the dancers are like roving troubadours, breaking the fourth wall as they shape-shift into different parts, “commenting” on what’s taking place through movements both dignified and grotesque, and then reeling us in through emotional exuberance.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck sang both the Dido and Sorceress roles, impressing with her shimmery and aching vibrato. The onstage Dido and Sorceress was dancer Laurel Lynch, an elegant and statuesque beauty. Her long curly hair was tied up for Dido, and the unruly locks down in her face for the Sorceress. Making the characterizations real, however, takes more than a change in hair style. Lynch’s Dido was restrained at first, a bit of a blank slate, as she was visibly focusing on the Queen’s exacting positions. She loosened up in her duets with Aeneas. Though models of courtly decorum, they still crackled like fire. When he comes to say goodbye, Lynch swept her arm upward on the words, “Away, away!”, and the force of the gesture was the equivalent of a slap. She transformed her lean line into a full-bodied coarseness while playing the Sorceress.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams sang Aeneas with a sumptuous quality, which was matched by the dancer-Aeneas, Domingo Estrada, Jr. Morris does not generally cast his works based on a dancer’s looks; indeed he likes to play against type. But here, the physical appearance of Dido and Aeneas is critical—even when Morris improbably switches the genders of the dancers. Estrada, broad-shouldered, bare-chested and devilishly handsome, was matinee-idol perfection. He projects authority and mischievousness, as when he throws a knowing wink to the audience after he has won over Dido and she leads him offstage for loving rewards.

The secondary roles were also enchantingly sung and danced: Michelle Yard as Dido’s too-helpful sister Belinda—soprano Sherezade Panthaki—and Rita Donahue as the sidekick Second Woman—Marguerite Krull in the soprano part. Dance Group veteran Lauren Grant led the sailors in a jolly Irish step dance and jig (sung by Andrew Konopak). Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray made hilarious scoundrels, heeding the Sorceress as her henchmen-witches (singers Panthaki and Krull).

Morris makes a remarkably small production feel epic, as befitting an ancient myth. Robert Bordo’s set is spare: several low balustrades (on which the dancers’ run, pose, and upon which both Dido and Sorceress similarly collapse), sheets of black hanging cloth, and a backdrop that’s an abstract map of Aeneas’ journey. The dancers’ wear draped black balloon pants and fitted tops, designed by Christine Van Loon. Yet, with great nuance and variety, Morris culls from his vast movement knowledge to create ancient-looking friezes, lines that surge like waves, and classical Indian poses. The piece begins and ends with  solemn promenades. Several scenes conclude with dancers pounding their feet against the floor to create a rumbling hail storm that portends the tragic finale.

Musica Angelica and two guest artists from the Morris music ensemble made their own fireworks. When everyone joined together—musicians, singers, dancers—it proved, yet again, you don’t need a movie screen to make a blockbuster.

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