'La Didone': A Long, Slow Night at the Opera

Monday, June 19, 2006

Francesco Cavalli's seldom-staged 1641 opera "La Didone" tells essentially the same tale as Purcell's more popular "Dido and Aeneas," only with a Trojan back story and happy ending -- and nearly four hours of music. It's a work of fine invention and sensuous beauty, but it rarely shakes its tone of slow-moving melancholy.

Or perhaps that's merely the impression of the work given at Friday night's performance by the Baltimore-based company Ignoti Dei Opera at American University's Greenberg Theatre. Timothy Nelson (who's credited as artistic, managing, stage and co-music director, as well as set and costume designer) is clearly in love with every line of recitative -- there are endless swaths of it here -- and co-music director Adam Pearl seemed unwilling to vary his deliberate pacing with those quicksilver shifts in tempo that can enliven 17th-century Venetian opera.

That said, the playing of the period-instrument ensemble was richly colored and heartfelt. And if the conspicuous youth of the cast was frequently betrayed by limited range and faulty intonation, tenor Aaron Sheehan, soprano Bonnie McNaughton and countertenor Brian Cummings shone with sweet-toned, emotionally arresting singing. Early-music veteran Rosa Lamoreaux proved an accustomed delight at her every shimmering vocal entrance.

Nelson's generically modern costumes looked closet-pulled, and he might consider handing over set design duties to someone else. But his blocking achieved a sensible compromise between naturalism and presentational baroque posturing, and he drew committed, text-specific acting from many of his performers.

-- Joe Banno

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