Back-to-Back Glories

Operas from two centuries assume vibrant contemporary life

It's impossible to believe that any dance or opera company could present Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's 1934 Four Saints in Three Acts and Henry Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas as magnificently as the Mark Morris Dance Group—and on the same program, with the same superb dancers ruling the stage, and the same excellent solo vocalists, chorus, and chamber orchestra in the pit with conductor Jeffrey Thomas.

For each of these very different operas, Morris creates a style that is not quite what you might imagine but penetrates to the heart of the music. His Saints is as fresh, playful, and American as Stein's words and Thomson's score, but Maira Kalman's painted backdrops, Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes, and the dance ideas transport the scenario to Spain, real-life home of the opera's principal characters, Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius. In a folk-art painting come alive, the dancers are frolicking village divinities, the women wearing pretty skirts and shawl-collared blouses, the men in cutoff white pants. In terms of its visual picture, Dido plays against the lyrical flourishes of Purcell's music and the poetics of Nahum Tate's libretto. The stage is bare except for Robert Bordo's portable benches, black fabric swags, and a backcloth resembling a problematic, crumpled map of the Mediterranean. The dancers all wear sleeveless black tops (except for bare-chested Aeneas), long black sarongs, and earrings, and—part of the time at least—they move and pose in a style as severe and iconic as that of an ancient frieze.

For Saints, Morris devises all manner of charming chain dances, couple dances that invoke the jota and sevillanas, and processions in front of a curtain hand-printed with some of Stein's elliptical words. Michelle Yard's Saint Teresa is no poet-nun; in her very short diaphanous frock, she's a gracious hostess and as radiant as a little girl at an especially good party. John Heginbotham may march, but his Ignatius is hardly a soldier turned ascetic; he's sunny and a bit vague and adores Teresa.

In Dido: Biesecker (left) and Darragh
Stephanie Berger/BAM
In Dido: Biesecker (left) and Darragh

Stein's sung and spoken text is sweet but often tart or matter-of-fact. Morris interprets it with gestures and dancing that catch the spirit of the music, sometimes launching himself imaginatively from Thomson's score. "One at a time regularly regularly by the time that they are in and and in one at at time" begins Act IV. That's all it takes for Morris to set up an opening in the front curtain as the entrance to a desirable club, with Teresa and Ignatius checking would-be partiers off a list. It seems perfectly appropriate that at the end, Ignatius climbs up behind Teresa on a swing, and the two of them pump it higher as the curtain falls. That's how one gets to heaven in this particular world. Except that everyone's already there.

When I saw Didoin Boston in 1989, Morris played both Dido the Carthaginian queen and the vengeful Sorceress bent on destroying her (the Sorceress conjures up a storm and a ruse that send Dido's lover Aeneas on to Italy). Morris's tour de force performance in a sense dominated the work. Now Amber Darragh eloquently conveys Dido's royal restraint, her yielding to passion, and her grief, and Bradon McDonald romps brilliantly through what was choreographed as a travesty role, surveying his gibbering minions with alternate boredom and glee. His glittering fingernails have a new significance; he likes to imitate the queen.

Versatility is a hallmark of the evening. Baritone James Maddalena turns from a mid-20th-century Ignatius into a late-17th-century Aeneas (danced with stalwart force by Craig Biesecker). Christine Brandes morphs from Saint Teresa I into Dido's sister Belinda, with Jayne West as a second silver-voiced attendant. Marjorie Folkman and Rita Donahue, who dance these two women frolicking giddily at the prospect of the queen's romance, also join the chorus of swaggering sailors led by Lauren Grant and the Sorceress's minions. Gregory Nuber and Maile Okamura exit as sailors and instantly re-enter as McDonald's chief witches for the seething riot of kiss-and-kill encounters that Morris juxtaposes to the score's more restrained triumph.

I cherish one particular contrast as an example of Morris's sensitivity to subtleties of feeling and style. In Scene 1, Belinda soothes Dido's unrest with a flat formal hand that doesn't quite touch the queen's shoulder. At the end, when Dido laments, Belinda strokes her hair, as if they were still two young sisters, the elder injured in a cruel game.

Read Jowitt on Benjamin Millepied and Yvonne Meier at villagevoice.com/dance.

 
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