On the Ides of March, at the Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music presented the first of five performances of choreographer, former dancer, director and, now, conductor Mark Morris’ double bill of chamber works by icons of English opera, the mid-20th century’s Benjamin Britten and the early Baroque era’s Henry Purcell, each written in a stark, spare idiom.
“Curlew River,” the one of Britten’s three Church Parables without a Biblical theme, is based, rather, on a Japanese Noh play, “Sumidagawa.” An air of ritual prevailed in this aptly stylized production. Singers and musicians, barefoot and in white, entered together, and the leader of the chorus, baritone Clinton Curtis, essentially guided the ensemble in this conductor-less opus. High tenor Isaiah Bell as the Madwoman, his white parasol and red hair clearly differentiating him from the others, recounted a sad tale in a vocal line replete with eerie melismas, in which he ventured into head tone. The ensemble mocked Bell’s character with similarly melismatic figures. Baritone Douglas Williams was the gruff Ferryman, who would keep the woman off his boat, crossing the eponymous Curlew River, but ultimately softened and led her to the grave of her lost son, helping to give her closure. Baritone Conor McDonald was the Traveller, carrying a shillelagh and, at first, joining in mocking the Madwoman, but then becoming her champion and escort. Countertenor Daniel Moody was the unseen spirit of the Madwoman’s dead son.
The ensemble carried white origami birds, representing the curlews of the Fenland, the gulls of the marsh, which they later placed on the boy’s grave. A man waving a white sail and the others, moving together, suggested the motion of the boat as it crossed the river.
Starring in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, singing sumptuously, delivered music of both the mournful Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her nemesis the Sorceress, suggesting that Dido causes her own abandonment and downfall. Blythe is no stranger to Morris’ direction, having succeeded David Daniel’s as Orfeo, in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” at the Metropolitan Opera, where the principal singers acted their roles amidst the members of the Mark Morris Dance Group. In a prior Morris “Dido,” at BAM’s Harvey Theater, dancers took center stage, while singers were visible off to the side. Here, singers were banished to the pit and all action entirely handled by dancers. The singers did not come to the stage for a final bow.
Williams, the Ferryman from “Curlew River,” made a polished Aeneas, the Trojan Prince. Sherezade Panthaki sang Belinda, Dido’s sympathetic sister, as well as the first witch, in a fluid high soprano. Tenor Jason Weisinger contributed a swaggering sailor’s sea shanty. Yulia Van Doren sang the second woman and the second witch.
Dancers Laurel Lynch (Dido and the Sorceress), Domingo Estrada, Jr. (Aeneas), Lesley Garrison (Belinda), Rita Donahue (the second woman), Noah Vinson (the first witch), Dallas McMurray (the second witch), and Lauren Grant (the sailor) played the principal roles on stage. Morris served as conductor in addition to choreographer and director. Muscular Estrada was an Aeneas quite easy on the eyes. Among members of the corps, many male kisses were exchanged during the witches’ later scene.
“Curlew River” and “Dido and Aeneas” run through March 19. Visit http://www.bam.org
for further information.