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COC Dido and Aeneas/Coffee Cantata

By Joseph So January 6, 2004

Dido and Aeneas

Colleen Skull Dido, Peter McGillivray Aeneas, Frederique Vezina Belinda, Marie Anne Kowan Sorceress, Andrea Ludwig First Witch.

The Coffee Cantata
Luc Robert Narrator, Peter Barrett Schlendrian, Andrea Ludwig Liesgen.

Members of the Canadian Opera Orchestra

Richard Bradshaw, conductor

Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Production

December 3rd, 2003

With this COC Ensemble double bill, Dmitri Bertman, the enfant terrible of opera directors, is back in town, and you better believe it. The Russian caused a sensation with his staging of La Traviata a few seasons back. It was rumoured that the production drew more mail than just about any COC productions in recent memory, with markedly divided opinions. It aroused so much audience passion for the simple reason that, for the naysayers at least, it came dangerously close to the ‘E’ word - Eurotrash. But this Traviata was comparatively mild — witness the extreme exponent of this directorial genre in the newly released DVD of Hans Neunfels’ Die Fledermaus from Salzburg.

Colleen Skull as Dido in the Canadian Opera
Company Ensemble Studioproduction of
Dido and Aeneas/Coffee Cantata, 2003

Photo By Michael Cooper

This time around, the COC offered an idiosyncratic pairing of Dido and Aeneas and, of all things, Coffee Cantata. Given the nature of the productions — an ‘experimental’ ensemble studio show, done in an atypical performing space, populated by young artists willing and eager to try anything, the outcome remained uneven, with Coffee Cantata coming out as the clear winner. This delightful production fit the joyous, uncomplicated music and the charming story well. The scrim in the opening scene, with the coffee beans slowly being depleted in the (unseen) coffee grinder was an amusing touch. With each successive section of the score, the costumes and props were cleverly updated to represent a different period. Andrea Ludwig, with her soubrette voice, was a suitably pert Liesgen. As the father, Peter Barrett won the battle of the baritones, singing strongly and moving well onstage. Luc Robert’s clarion tenor was underused as the Narrator. The ‘opera’ ended with supers going up and down the aisle, passing out cups of the stuff supplied by a famous American coffee chain to members of the audience, a nice touch even if the brew was watery.

Unlike the ebullient Bach cantata, the Purcell classic was smothered by a messy update of sorts that was sometimes tedious, very occasionally effective, but mostly bewildering, and at its worst downright anti-musical. This is a case where the self-consciousness of the stage direction and the choreography stifled the excellent musical values. To be sure, one should be open to novel interpretations, the best of these often afford refreshing views on a familiar work. But this only holds if what goes on makes sense, and above all, serves the music. The purpose of turning the chorus into a mob of necktie-pulling, business-suited paparazzi, or having the witches eviscerate a pumpkin, or Dido to sing while folding origami is lost on this reviewer. The reason for the presence of an ankle deep pool of water for the soloists to get their feet and costume wet will only be known to Mr. Bertman himself. Such goings-on detracted from the sublime score, played beautifully by the chamber orchestra and conducted with much feeling by Richard Bradshaw.

Kudos to the soloists for being good sports. Mezzo-turned-soprano Colleen Skull had the regal bearing for a queenly Dido, even if her big, rich, burnished tone and equally big vibrato was not ideally suited to early music. Peter McGillivray was an understated Aeneas. The best of the soloists was Frederique Vezina as Belinda — mind you, she suffered the least from the stage direction. Marie Anne Kowan lacked the strong low notes as the sorceress, though she acted well. The chorus was superb, if one could just listen to the sound and ignored the stage action. I only wished the production team would show more trust in the power of Purcell’s music, which after all has endured over three hundred years for its musical values without the benefit of an ‘update’.

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