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Arts & Entertainment

LA Opera's doubleheader 'like Bambi Meets Godzilla'

Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of LA Opera's
Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of LA Opera's "Dido and Aeneas"
Craig Mathew/LA Opera

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews the L.A. Opera doubleheader of Henry Purcell’s "Dido & Aeneas" and Bela Bartok’s  "Bluebeard's Castle," in performance through Nov. 15.

Purcell’s "Dido & Aeneas" sharing an opera double bill with Bela Bartok’s "Bluebeard's Castle" is a lot like Bambi Meets Godzilla. These are works from two different universes, with different physical laws.

While nominally a tragedy, "Dido" folds English late-17th century brightness into Virgil’s epic. But Bela Balasz’ libretto for “Bluebeard” blends the darkest of all fairy tales and the apocalyptic shadows preceding World War I into a morbid tableau carried on the shoulders of the young Bartok’s incendiary, ground-breaking score.

So how do the two manage to create such an enjoyable evening together? By being a novel and welcome departure from the L.A. Opera’s chestnut repertory of the past few years and by being singular operas, brilliantly (with some exceptions) mounted.

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The positives were very strong: Perfect singing, particularly the Dido of Paula Murrihy. She captured the spirit of this lonely woman of great station in the girlish throes of her first real love. Her tone was lighter than those of great past singers of this role, like Janet Baker and Kirsten Flagstad; somehow this worked well not just for the badinage of the opening arias, but also made her suicide aria, “When I am Laid in Earth,” all the more poignant.

Baritone Liam Bonner was perfect in the more passive role of Aeneas as a Pawn of Fate, abandoning his love to the gods’ demand that he go found the city of Rome. Kateryna Kaspar was fine and lucid as Dido’s sister Belinda. The dancers and chorus blended magnificently, creating constant movement that carried the story along.

In vivid contrast, the movement of “Bluebeard’s Castle” is all in the minds and souls of its two protagonists. Judith is a young bride who has just jilted her fiancé to (somewhat unaccountably)  elope with a mysterious, wealthy and brutal duke, who has spirited her off to his dark, dripping, windowless castle for their honeymoon.

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Of course, there are the mysterious keys, the blood that oozes all over the place and visions of the sanguinary garden, the lake of tears, and so on. Director Barrie Koski leaves these visions invisible, however. Claudia Mahnke’s Judith must describe them to us, as Robert Hayward’s Bluebeard agrees that indeed, his realm is a gory one, but please, let’s not overstress the point. Judith, meanwhile, demands to let in sunlight and fresh air. And to open the last fatal door.  Impetuous youth speaks truth to evil power, which, as often happens, has the final say.

Mahnke and Hayward superbly invoke all these visions — and the passions and horrors behind them — over an eerie, sadistic sexual dynamic driven by orchestral music that ranges from folk-like clarinet solos to post-Wagnerian cataclysm.

The LA Opera orchestra delivered superbly throughout both operas under conductor Steven Sloane. In the Bartok, the band surged with a Mahlerian throb. In the Purcell, enhanced by a cohort of archaic woodwinds and towering many-stringed theorbos, the band assumed the prancing poise of a Jacobean court ensemble. But some aspects of Kosky’s productions grated, particularly in “Dido and Aeneas.” For instance, the garden-party-in-Gormenghast costuming and his decision that the heroine apparently hiccup herself to death.

(John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress in "Dido and Aeneas," with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch. Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera)

The much ballyhooed transvestite counter-tenor witches sounded fine, but their frenzied antics added nothing. Some of the blame belongs to Restoration hack Nahum Tate’s libretto, which plunked them into Virgil’s originally witch-free epic.

But this aside, it was a prodigious evening at the LA Opera. And the night I was there, this unusual and brilliant double bill played to what looked like a full house. LA Opera take note. You’ve got customers for ambitious productions like this double triumph.