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Monday, August 24, 2009

Saturday Night: Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at 409-499 Illinois

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 at 12:04 AM

click to enlarge kindra_20scharich_20as_20dido_20db_p_20dscn1005_1.jpg
Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
409-499 Illinois
August 22, 2009
Better than:
Most other activities in office-park courtyards (smoke breaks, sack lunches)

Whatever way you like your opera, San Francisco probably has a company that can accommodate your preferences. Those looking for the traditional night on the town with all the trappings -- bejeweled dowager patronesses of the arts, internationally renowned stars, overpriced wine, and long lines at the bathrooms at intermission -- can head to the War Memorial Opera House for any of SF Opera's lavish productions. For a more intimate and less pricey experience that nonetheless delivers solid value for money, SF Lyric Opera puts on quality stagings of the classics at Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. SF Parlor Opera will even do Faust in your house, as it were.  San Francisco's newest opera company, Urban Opera, has now added itself to the mix with its inaugural three-night production of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and has eschewed indoor space altogether, opting for a "sculpture garden" between two office buildings abutting Mission Bay. If your initial reaction to that concept is "brrr," well, you'd be correct.

There's a lot to like about the idea of taking opera out of the grand concert halls and integrating it with the urban environment most of us spend so much time in. This move defamiliarizes and thus reinvigorates otherwise quotidian surroundings, even while making this usually rarefied art form more immediately accessible. In this regard, Urban Opera has done a fine job with its initial offering. The production makes use of the entire space, with performers trouping in from all directions at various points, and occasionally features two scenes unfolding simultaneously in different quadrants of the courtyard.  At its best moments, the production effectively balances spectacle with intimacy.

Supported by the five-member Jubilate Baroque Orchestra (violin, viola, cello, violone, and keyboard) and a spunky chorus that contributed both strong vocals and a sense of impish fun, the cast features mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Dido and tenor Todd Wedge as Aeneas. Both singers discharged the title roles well (and Scharich does a nice interpretation of Dido's iconic final aria), though some of the performers in other capacities perhaps displayed more enthusiasm than vocal chops. However, the nature of the opera is such that the two titular characters -- their legendary romance notwithstanding -- do not actually spend much time together on stage, and thus the audience doesn't really get to witness the sparks flying. We sort of have to take librettist Nahum Tate's word for it that Dido is in fact smitten with the Trojan warrior -- that, and the fact that she reappears midway through the production with Cupid's arrow literally shot through her stomach (in Kue King's inventive, contemporary costume design). But given the preponderant role that fate and duty play in the opera, it shouldn't be surprising that the romantic leads seem rather devoid of agency.

The audience of perhaps 100 assembled in the courtyard received the company's efforts with a warmth that belied the nippy temperatures. It will be interesting to see whether Urban Opera can stake out a tenable niche for itself, and how its future productions will build on its commitment to opera where you'd least expect it.

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Emily Hilligoss


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