Boston saw the second-ever set of performances of Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas, in June 1989 (it had premiered in Brussels in March), but apart from a one-afternoon stand in September 1995, the work hasn’t been back. It’s one of his most celebrated pieces: Anna Kisselgoff gave it a mostly favorable review in the New York Times; Thea Singer and Lloyd Schwartz were both enchanted in their 1989 side-by-side Phoenix reviews of the Mark Morris group’s dancing and Emmanuel Music’s performance of Henry Purcell’s circa 1689 opera (with, opening night, no less than the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido); and even Laura Jacobs in her New Criterion essay “Bubble Boy” — which takes Mark to task for his more recent efforts — admits to liking the work. I don’t recall whether I saw Dido in 1989 or 1995 or both, but I do remember that I thought it a clunky, tedious, heavy-breathing embodiment of Purcell that exacerbated Baroque opera’s tendency to preen and posture — not to mention moralize. Or was it meant to be camp? At least a decade later, and perhaps a little wiser, I visited the Image Entertainment DVD (which was shot in 1995) in the hope of an more enlightened reaction. All I got was a flashback to James Wolcott’s infamous 2007 Vanity Fair blog “Joanie Loves Chunky,” in which he talks of watching the New Yorker’s “Joan Acocella skipping with Mark Morris across the verdant green with a rose between her teeth as he popped himself open another can of beer.”
MIRROR IMAGES? Amber Darragh and Craig Biesecker are at their best when they’re dancing with each other.
Dido and Aeneas is back this week for five performances (three of them remaining: tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm) at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and Morris, who had always danced two of the work’s lead roles, Dido and the Sorceress, has moved from the stage into the pit, where he’s conducting Emmanuel Music. (These performances are dedicated to Emmanuel Music founder Craig Smith, who died last year; he had led the Brussels premiere and the subsequent Boston dates.) For a time Morris was dividing his former roles: Amber Darragh would do Dido and Bradon McDonald the Sorceress one evening, and then they’d reverse the casting the next night. Now he again has one dancer doing both roles in the same performance, the way a single ballerina does Odette and Odile in SwanLake. Darragh danced Wednesday and last night; McDonald will do the weekend performances.
The story as told by Virgil is timeless: Aeneas, fleeing the Greeks’ sack of Troy, is driven to Carthage, where he and the city’s widowed queen, Dido, fall in love. It is, however, Aeneas’s destiny to settle in Italy and found what will become the Roman Empire (which will eventually destroy Carthage). When Jupiter sends Mercury to remind Aeneas that his fate lies elsewhere, Aeneas sails off into the sunrise, the smoke from Dido’s funeral pyre trailing behind him. Purcell’s opera, with its libretto by Nahum Tate (the man who “improved” King Lear), changed the focus: it’s not Jupiter who diverts the course of true love but rather a Sorceress who’s adamant that “the Queen of Carthage, whom we hate,/As we do all in prosp’rous state” must go up in flames. She sends her “trusty Elf/In form of Mercury himself” to hustle Aeneas off so Rome can divide Gaul into three parts, Leonardo can dazzle us with his Mona Lisa, and Italy can win the World Cup. Is Dido cursed by the gods, an object for our pity? Is she being punished for breaking her vow of fidelity to her departed spouse? Or is the Sorceress Dido’s self-destructive alter ego? That’s how Morris treats Tate’s libretto, and that’s why he has the same performer dance Dido and the Sorceress. The gods don’t really come into it: when Aeneas announces that “In spite of Jove’s command, I’ll stay” (the “command” being a metaphor for his roving lust?), Dido refuses him: “For ’tis enough, whate’er you now decree,/That you once had a thought of leaving me.” Love that can’t abide such thoughts is always doomed to the pyre.
Purcell’s splendors notwithstanding, it’s a thin story line — the entire opera runs just 55 minutes — and Morris underlines its weaknesses by choreographing the text rather than the music. Last night, inappropriate images kept flashing before me: Jules Feiffer’s black-unitarded Beat girl doing her “Ode to Whatever”; Snoopy doing the “Beagle”; the martial-arts nieces of Hai Fat kicking butt in The Man with the Golden Gun; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Reason #3 For Never Writing A Ballet: “Balletic miming is extremely elementary and leads to a naive kind of symbolism.” Dance isn’t about miming hunting with a bow and arrow, or weighing anchor, or depicting with the upper body (however enticingly Second Woman Rita Donahue does it) the tale of Diana and Actæon. And when Morris does choreograph the music, he’s literal in a way that duplicates rather than counterpoints: one dancer making a gesture and everyone else following; dancer groups representing the vocal divisions of the chorus moving in canon. You could see the dancers’ celebratory leaping at the chorus’s “Let the triumphs of love/And of beauty be shown” as the descendant of the opening waltz in Swan Lake, but it’s loose, casual, even floppy, the ballet’s poetry transmogrified into a cellphone conversation.