Dancers tip-toed in stately procession, while alternately molding into aggressive gnarled warriors, images familiar from amphorae; they presage a clash of forces of destruction, the unfolding of a love story, and a sorcerer’s ravenous desire for control. Based on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), libretto by Nahum Tate’s Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1668), is the latter’s version of the tale of Aeneas, a man cursed by a sorceress and doomed to lose his love in order to found a new city. When Aeneas departs from Carthage, Dido, in her despair, commits suicide. Morris honors the original vision of the opera, meanwhile coalescing music, song, and choreography into a blend that invites singers, dancers, and musicians to express equally. He uses an economy of design in movement that juxtaposes music, song, and set. Morris knows how to craft music-dance-theatre and how to delimit so a work has a unique balance between the art forms. In the case of Dido and Aeneas, he chose to have the dancers on stage and musicians and singers (in view) in the orchestra pit. Each symbolism found in the dancers’ gestures, shapes, and actions relate to the emotions in the music, song, and storytelling. Morris' use of repetition, sustainment, subtly shifting canons, pathways, focused attention, and body shapes and designs were expressed with careful formality for the Carthaginians, while the Sorcerer’s cohort was delineated by rhythm, chaotic floor plans, strong weight, impulse, release, vibration, and full-body undulations.

Domingo Estrada Jr and Amber Star Merkens © Susana Millman
Domingo Estrada Jr and Amber Star Merkens
© Susana Millman

Morris’s Dido and Aeneas premiered on March 11, 1989 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels, Belgium). It is twenty-six years old, and it feels fresh and strong in its present form. At the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented it, with music performed by Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra (directed by Martin Haselböck) and Mark Morris Dance Group ensemble musicians Hank Hejink and Colin Fowler. It has graced the stages of six European countries and twelve American cities, twice coming to Irvine.

Originally, Morris performed the female roles of Dido and the Sorceress; in this version, he cast Laurel Lynch in these dual roles. Lynch has the physical and emotional clarity to skillfully shift energy, emotion, and movement styles between her two characters revealing Dido’s tenderness and nascent love and the Sorceress’ virulent, savage obsession with power. In one scene she is elegant, composed, and graceful, yet in the next she is toxic with body vibrations from the will to kill.

Didos’ partner Aeneas, well performed by Domingo Estrada, Jr., shares the stage with her, with a strong physical display of masculinity and a calm power. Michelle Yard, a powerful Belinda, carefully supported Dido alongside Second Woman, Rita Donahue, from their first moment on stage to the end of the dance—always attentive, expressive, caring, and forward thinking with lively empathic dancing. Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray played the devious, servile First and Second Witches, respectively, and the exuberant, buoyant Sailor led the brisk sailor's dance to celebrate as they abandon the Carthaginians. While the sailor’s dance scene presents a lighter tone, its culmination represents the impending departure of Aeneas. Shrewdly, Morris layers each example of the sorceress’ murders with a dose of humor; a present-day baseball metaphor of making it to third base results in the death of the runner. Company members Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Donahue, Lesley Garrison, Grant, Aaron Louix, McMurray, Vinson, Jenn Weddel, and Yard delightfully performed the Courtiers, Witches, Spirits, Sailors, and Conscience.

© Susana Millman
© Susana Millman

Dido and the Sorceress roles were sung with clear, affecting story telling by Jamie Van Eyck (mezzo-soprano). Douglas Williams (bass-baritone) performed Aeneas with a rich groundedness. Sherezade Panthaki (soprano) performed the roles of Belinda and First Witch with sensitivity and emotion. Marguerite Krull (soprano) performed the roles of Second Woman and Second Witch. California State University Long Beach student Andrew Konopak (tenor) performed the role of Sailor. The Bob Cole Chamber Choir, premier choral ensemble of California State University Long Beach, directed by Jonathan Talberg, seamlessly reinforced the whole.

The ending was brilliant, with ceremonial, phlegmatic, mourning dancers processing two-by-two, carefully stepping forward, and nearly floating, upstage to disappear. The penultimate dancer glances to Belinda and leaves her alone, next to Dido.

While most operas include singers who act and dancers who supplement the main action, Morris puts dance, music, song, and storytelling on equal footing. His amalgamations attract music, opera, and dance cognoscenti; some may attend for the live music and singing, some for the dance, and a few, like myself, who come to delight in both. Morris’ Dido and Aeneas is a perfectly balanced, well-cut gem.

*****