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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: 2019 Joye in Aiken Showcases opera

March 1, 2019

For the past 11 years, Joye in Aiken has brought to our community exceptional musical talent, particularly in the categories of chamber music, cabaret performance and jazz. This year the eight-day festival ventures into the world of opera.

Scheduled for Tuesday, March 12, is a concert version of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” which is one of the earliest English operas, dating from the 1680s. Based on Book 4 of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the greatest of ancient Roman epic poems, the opera focuses on the tragic love affair between the doomed queen of Carthage and the legendary Trojan prince and refugee.

As one might expect for a work translated from one idiom to another, Purcell – or more precisely the work’s librettist Nahum Tate – took some liberties with Virgil’s original text. The most dramatic alteration involved the addition of a malevolent force intent upon driving the two lovers apart. In the first act, Dido is initially fearful of a marriage to Aeneas because she worries that such a bond might weaken her status as a ruler; but thanks to the intercession of her sister Belinda, she eventually comes to trust the Trojan prince’s protestations of love.

The second act introduces a major non-Virgilian character, the sorceress – sometimes casting might necessitate a sorcerer – who sends a spirit in the guise of the god Mercury to dissuade Aeneas from his dalliance with Dido and recommit himself to establishing a new Troy in Italy. Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, are reputed to be descendants of Aeneas.

When a storm interrupts a picnic planned by the betrothed pair, Dido hastily returns to the palace; Aeneas, on the other hand is waylaid by the faux Mercury, who convinces him that the gods require that he complete his original mission.

In the third and final act, following a short scene involving sailors preparing the Trojan ships for departure and the sorceress’s smug assertion that she has now successfully orchestrated the queen’s death, Dido and Belinda both confront Aeneas about his change of heart. Even though he offers to defy the gods and stay true to his pledge of eternal devotion, Dido remains convinced of her suitor’s essential fickleness. It is at this point that she bids Aeneas farewell, singing the most famous aria from the opera: “When I am laid to earth.” As the Trojan fleet departs, she commits suicide.

In part because of the renewed interest in baroque music from the early 20th century to the present, Dido’s signature aria, sometimes labeled “Dido’s Lament,” has been often performed as a stand-alone piece by vocalists, ranging from opera stars like Augusta-born diva Jessye Norman to pop performers like the late Jeff Buckley. Particularly evocative is the closing couplet: “Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate/Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

The March 12 production of “Dido and Aeneas” is part of a hundred-year revival of interest in this Purcell masterwork, which was largely forgotten until a late-Victorian stage production in 1895, marking the bicentenary of the composer’s death. The Juilliard production, featuring the school’s principal period instrument ensemble and nine singers from the Marcus Institute of Vocal Arts, premiered last Friday, Feb. 22, in New York City. The performance in Aiken this month will be followed by a short tour of Europe, including venues in London and Paris.

The talented cast will include Israeli mezzo soprano Shaked Bar as Dido and baritone Dominik Belavy, who claims Detroit as his hometown, as Aeneas. The sorceress will be played by Roswell, Georgia, native Myka Murphy; Britt Hewitt, a soprano from Jacksonville, Florida, takes on the role of the deceptive sprite; the part of Belinda has been assigned to mezzo Mer Wohlgemuth, also hailing from Florida.

As an addendum to this column, permit me to mention one other event that I think will be a highlight of this year’s Joye in Aiken calendar, and that is the March 14 appearance of Jessica Lang Dance. Aikenites have very few local opportunities to experience the wonders of modern dance, and Joye in Aiken is to be applauded for once again bringing to our fair city a professional company with an international reputation.

I remember well the stellar performance of Bodytraffic in Aiken two years ago, and I look forward to experiencing the celebrated choreography of Jessica Lang as realized by the ten members of her company.

For ticket information, visit the festival website at www.joyeinaiken.com. “Dido and Aeneas” will be performed at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Aiken; Jessica Lang Dance will appear at the AECOM Center for the Performing Arts.