Where is the line? Where does the stage end and the audience begin? This is what Australian director Barrie Kosky probes in his production (originally for Frankfurt), revived in LA on Saturday evening. In the two single act operas, Kosky did what many of us would be tempted to do: find the common link between two unrelated pieces. It was an evening of middling success, theatrically, but one that was often a musical feast for the ears.  

If anything, both pieces are clearly related in the theatrical freedom they afford directors. Purcell’s 17th century masterpiece charms with an esoterically rich libretto where the poetry of the words and their symbolism are evocative; Bartók’s 20th century thunderbolt is dark and fantastical. The music for both is overwhelming in its inventiveness, which cuts to the core of human emotion. For the audience, the action is merely a vehicle by which we have reason to empathize – it is inconsequential.

Kosky takes this to a new level by which to explore the ability of the audience to feel, and in Dido, it falls flat. Kosky’s vision brought forth a production that seemed to grow more outlandish as it went along. The curtain rose on the entire cast in front of a shallow backdrop staring at the audience, while the house lights were still up, as if we were the real performance. An enormously long bench stretched the width of the stage as the only prop. The chorus often sang from the front of the hall, surrounding the exposed orchestra, and their hyperactive gestures expounded simplistic reaction to the play. It was busy and demanded laughter.

Indeed, the star of the Purcell was countertenor John Holiday as the Sorceress who, with his cohorts G. Thomas Allen and Darryl Taylor, were depraved and bizarre as the sinister troublemakers. Dido and Aeneas, played nobly by Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner, respectively, were the only characters granted immunity, more statuesque than human. Murrihy was especially affecting with a penetrating mezzo that was agile and rich. While Bonner’s baritone lacked focus, he was heroic. Kateryna Kasper’s Belinda was effervescent and finely complimented by Summer Hassan as Second Lady.

The performance was musically outstanding. The 21-member orchestra was tentative at first but aligned much better as the show progressed. Conductor Steven Sloane led with an authentic flavor that almost seemed spontaneous. This was dramatic Baroque music and Sloane pushed it hard with fine results. The LA Opera Chorus sang their substantial part with an exquisite sense of style and were indispensable to the action.

The performance’s musicality made it frustrating how self-aware this production was. For all of the histrionics, it seemed oddly empty without some dancing to Purcell’s spirited interludes. While Dido and Aeneas attempted to stay above the plebeian fray, they were still a victim of the audience’s expectations and when some of the most finely empathetic music ever written demanded to be heard, Kosky couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Then you could see how downright puzzling it was when the second half, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, was comparatively less stifling. The massive stage was filled with a raked, rotating platter. Sure, this was also a physically taxing staging, but with just Judith and Bluebeard (six supernumeraries were featured), the focus never faltered from their emotional journey together. It is a fantastical story, as allegorical as Dido is to us today, but unlike the latter, Kosky’s imagination was enchanting while keeping the focus where it belonged. There are wonderful surprises for the audience. The director attempted to bridge the intermission with a recorded audio text, which reminded the audience of the blurred line between audience and performer, prior to the curtain going up in complete darkness (contrasting obviously with Dido.

It was almost a relief, however, when it became clear shortly into Bluebeard that distractions would be minimal and the drama would be congruous. Claudia Mahnke gave an overwhelming performance as Judith, throwing herself into the physically demanding part while singing with a strong soprano. While her instrument lacked the sort of broad power that one would welcome in the lower voice, it was an exceedingly pleasing sound and no small feat for such a demanding role. Robert Hayward was a gruff, tortured Bluebeard and while his baritone could be constricted, it was an enveloping performance. Sloane conducted the much larger, modern orchestra steadily, but with occasional balance problems at the loudest points. While it wasn’t a searing reading, it was dynamic. Costumes by Katrin Lea Tag were tastefully inventive in the Purcell, and starkly appropriate in the Bartók. Joachim Klein’s lighting was effective.

In the end, it seems an odd dichotomy and one that is a missed opportunity for Kosky who imaginatively proved in the Bartók how beautiful simplicity of imagery can be. It was a penetrating performance that, like Bluebeard at the end, stared the audience straight in the eye, urging self-exploration of our own secret rooms. It would have been more rewarding to see Dido receive the same directness.