On just about every level of the Met, water fountains pay tribute to Ezio Pinza, a singer who not only triumphed in opera, but also saw great success in musical theatre as the first Emile de Becque in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Pinza is the poster child for the seamless movement between opera and musical theatre, a tradition that, while not completely uncommon, has slowed considerably these days. So, you can imagine my initial reticence when it was announced that Broadway superstar Kelli O’Hara would be performing in Henry Purcell’s marvelously-adaptable English Baroque masque-opera Dido and Aeneas with MasterVoices. And you can also imagine my surprise when O’Hara’s cleanly-sung, introspective interpretation of the Carthaginian queen won the day at City Center last Friday.
Indeed, O’Hara’s Dido showed off a new side of this versatile artist. While a short sing like Dido may not be such a stretch for a singer who’s made her bones with well-defined, lyrical Rodgers and Hammerstein heroines, she acquitted herself with ease. Her satisfying soprano, smooth and creamy on the bottom and lilting on top, ably tackled the role’s demands, including a lick of coloratura singing that was impressive for a non-opera singer, and floated through the melancholy role. She moved elegantly across the stage in a series of beautiful gowns provided by Christian Siriano and her “When I am Laid in Earth,” Dido’s famed lament, was both lyrically and sincerely sung.
O’Hara wasn’t the only Broadway veteran onstage; her Light in the Piazza costar and dependable leading lady in her own right Victoria Clark sang the part of the Sorceress that drives Dido and Aeneas apart, Purcell’s most significant deviation from the source material, Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Clark’s refined, warm characterizations have impressed on the musical theatre stage, but her transfer to the Sorceress was not quite as seamless. The mezzo role saw Clark bring an unexpectedly pinched soprano voice that lacked the vocal colorings and shadings of her opera-singer co-stars. One only need hear her in “Losing my Mind” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (see below) to see what an expressive singer she can be, but such expressivity was sorely missing here. What she lacked in command of the vocals she more than compensated for in a committed and choreographically-intense physical interpretation.
Anna Christy’s Belinda/First Witch was sung with a winning combination of a bright, sweet voice, assured stage presence, and a golden smile. Sarah Mesko brought a delightfully dry, dusky mezzo to the part of the second lady-in-waiting/Second Witch. Elliot Madore’s rather wooden Aeneas was capably and cleanly sung with a covered sound but increased clarity in the upper register. In the small role of the drunken sailor, MasterVoices member Nathaniel Dolquist sounded appropriately unrefined.
Doug Varone’s direction was straightforward and his choreography, which fit well in the score’s orchestral interludes but became pervasive in other parts of the opera, was evocative if not sometimes a bit disorganized-looking in the limited space on the stage. The Doug Varone Dancers all performed well.
Ted Sperling, O’Hara’s oft collaborator, lead the strong Orchestra of St. Luke’s with (understandably) a lot of deference to the singers in a reading that was, though wholly non-revolutionary, pretty solid.
MasterVoices, formerly The Collegiate Chorale, sang with distinction across all sectors and crystalline diction. They were most distinguished in the choral passages of The Daughters of Necessity, a new prologue by Broadway’s Michael John LaChiusa. A needless conversation between the Three Fates, Necessity featured pleasant music but unremarkable words.
MasterVoices’ Dido and Aeneas turned out to be an unexpected delight and makes a strong argument for blurring the lines between musical theatre and opera.
What opera role do you think Kelli O’Hara should take on next? Who are some other musical theatre or opera singers you would like to see cross over and in what roles? Let me know in the comments!
Photos by Erin Baiano