Baroque opera rocks

Dido and Aeneas want to fall in love, but fate gets in the way.

Dear Eva The characters in the opera are controlled by fate and not free to follow their own desires. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dear Eva The characters in the opera are controlled by fate and not free to follow their own desires.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dani Ehrlich does not generally follow the beaten path to artistic expression. He fervently believes that works of art should feed off, and reflect, the contemporary zeitgeist.
That mind-set will come through loud and strong next Thursday (February 20, 6 and 8 p.m.) when he oversees two performances of the opera Dido and Aeneas, based on the music of English baroque composer Henry Purcell to a libretto by Irish-born, Englishresident Nahum Tate. The shows will take place at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, with the members of both casts comprising students from the Department of Vocal Music, the Faculty of Performance and the Conducting Department. David Shemer is responsible for maintaining the venture’s musical direction.
Considering the spread of his professional résumé to date, it really is no surprise at all that Ehrlich has opted for a left-field reading of the Purcell creation.
His CV thus far includes stints as a writer, actor, musician, designer, painter, and puppet designer and operator. He has worked on TV and in theater, and his primary professional focus over the last few years has been directing musical theater and opera. Add to that the fact that he is the son of late Israel Prize-winning composer Abel Ehrlich, and you get the feeling that the 51-year-old is bringing some hefty cultural, artistic and conceptual baggage to the current production.
“I have a very design-oriented approach to what I do as a director,” he notes. “I like things to be clean.
I also like the nitty-gritty but that, too, has to be done in the right way. A puppet is also a very precise thing.
Actually, I like the image of someone playing with us, like a puppeteer. I always have that element, as a director, of the actors being puppets.”
I proffer that this sentiment could be misconstrued as a bit megalomanic. “No, not at all. I don’t play God with my actors,” he parries with alacrity, attributing the control element to the storyline of the work in hand. “In Dido and Aeneas, the characters want to fall in love but fate gets in the way. They are not free to follow their own desires.”
Dido and Aeneas comprises a prologue and three acts.
The first known performance was at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London no later than the summer of 1688.
The story is based on Book IV of Roman first-century BCE writer Virgil’s Aeneid, and recounts the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her despair when he abandons her. A monumental work in Baroque opera, Dido and Aeneas is considered one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical works.
Ehrlich feels the opera posits all sorts of existential issues, and at a whirlwind pace. “The question is how much say we have in our own fate,” he says. “Dido and Aeneas is a story about a man who was on his way to Rome [via Carthage], and stopped on the way. She [Dido] fell in love with him, he forsook her and she killed herself.”
Sounds painfully straightforward enough, but the director says the story line offers plenty of food for thought. “This is the third time I have directed this opera. Everything happens so quickly in the opera.
There is a sense of an accelerated maturing process, of a young girl who goes from being innocent straight to feeling deep pain.”
That, of course, is a stage which adolescents still undergo – in one form or another – and Ehrlich has brought the opera into the here and now by setting it in a psychiatric ward of a contemporary hospital.
“In one of the previous versions I did [of the opera] I placed the action in a children’s dormitory, with the children following their queen’s every move, sort of like documentaries from the Communist era in which you see kids dressed exactly the same way, doing exactly the same things. It is a very closed-off world.”
Ehrlich has since taken the work a stage or two further, into cultural and social climes which he feels are more relevant to the issues of the day. “I think each director should take opera in the direction he wants,” he declares. “That is very important. I don’t entirely negate the conventional approach; however, I think a lot of directors around the world do what they think is expected of them. I don’t think that is the right way anymore. You know, you have [Verdi opera] Aida with pyramids in the scenery, and the characters in Dido all wear togas. I think that is passé.”
Then again, you don’t have to be provocative just for the sake of it. “The question is whether the concept works,” Ehrlich continues, adding that he and his like-minded cohorts in the sector are up against it.
“There is a problem with the medium we call opera, in that the people who can afford to buy tickets to performances set the tone. They are also, generally, older people who want to see opera portrayed the way they think it should be done. They think the scenery should be extravagant and that sort of thing.
“Opera managers, of course, realize that and, as a result, you end up with all kinds of anachronistic things. You get operas, today, that look like they have come straight out of the 1950s. That’s not my way.”
Ehrlich’s way is to take an energized, fresh approach to the centuries-old material and to present it to the public in an as appealing and as relevant a manner as possible. It is a fair bet that when we see the titular characters in the opera, we will get a sense of a young couple grappling with love issues of today, rather than echoing some moth-eaten ideas of what romance should be. •