Two acclaimed performers of contemporary music return to Cincinnati to make the case for a baroque opera more than 300 years old. Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, directed by Mischa Santora, combines forces with the Vocal Arts Ensemble, led by Earl Rivers, to present Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in the finale of its Baroque concert series. Mezzo soprano Soon Cho and tenor Mark T. Panuccio sing the lovers whose future is thwarted by Aeneas' destiny as the founder of Rome.
As survivors of A.P. Latin might recall, the fourth book of Virgil's Aenied tells of Aeneas and his crew being shipwrecked on the coast of Carthage, where queen Dido falls in love with him. Unfortunately, Aeneas answers to a higher purpose and leaves Dido to die of grief, proving once again that love is risky business, especially for royalty.
Purcell's three-act opera premiered in 1689 and is considered to be the first English opera. For Soon Cho, an advocate of 20th-century works, Purcell's music and her character proved to be surprising treasure troves.
"There's so much more drama than I ever thought," she says. "The range of emotions that Dido goes through in this short chamber work is amazing. She comes in as a love-stricken queen.
She says that peace is so much a part of her life, she has so much to live for and when Aeneas comes into her life, it completes her — until he's tricked into leaving her."
That's Purcell's librettist taking liberties with Virgil. In the original, Aeneas' own sense of duty forces him to leave Carthage, but in the opera an unnamed sorceress plotting Dido's destruction transforms herself into the god Mercury and commands Aeneas to depart.
"She's completely heartbroken and even when he says he'll stay and defy the gods, she sends him away," Cho says.
But not because of his great destiny — Dido's furious that Aeneas even thought of leaving her.
Tenor Mark Panuccio doesn't consider Aeneas to be quite the anti-hero. "He really is a heroic character but he does the right things for the wrong reasons," Panuccio says. "He loves Dido but even she tells him to leave."
And Panuccio notes that Aeneas has moments of genuine regret, cursing the gods for his fate.
"My favorite part in the score is when Aeneas sings, 'No sooner she resigns her heart/But from her arms I'm forced to part.' It's so beautiful, so real."
Cho and Panuccio performed together last summer in a Pops concert celebrating Cincinnati Opera at Riverbend and rocked the house as Mao Tse-Tung and his Second Secretary in Nixon in China. After the stratospheric jagged heights of John Adams' music, does Purcell seem, well, tame?
Cho admits that Nixon in China was a challenge "every night," but although Dido is smaller in scale, shorter and more lyric, creating a vibrant character and dramatic singing can be just as daunting.
Panuccio is emphatic about his love for Baroque music and his admiration for Purcell's score.
"I've always had a special place in my heart for this music," he says. "And I love how musically simplistic Dido is. But that doesn't make it easier!"
With the Chamber Orchestra, the Vocal Arts Ensemble and three soloists sharing Memorial Hall's stage, Soon Cho "has a couple ideas about the staging, little things I can do." She adds that CCO music director and conductor Mischa Santora says he'll be making his debut as a stage director.
Both singers agree that the real drama is in the music.
"It doesn't have to be staged," Panuccio says. "It gives the singers more responsibility to convey the characters, the action through their voices."
Soon Cho adds: "All the emotion is in the music, and you still have to be a singing actor to make it real for the audiences. My job is to become Dido and to communicate her character to the audience."
The compact score includes dance music, choruses for sailors, witches and the Carthaginians and, of course, passionate solos. Dido's final aria is the best-known segment, but Panuccio finds the music sung by Belinda, Dido's maid, to be equally moving and "eloquent in its simplicity."
It's also "a great way to get your feet wet if you've never been to an opera," Soon Cho says. Memorial Hall offers an intimate setting for an emotionally dramatic score sung in English, vivid characters and a love story that clocks in at about an hour.
Mischa Santora puts love and duty on a collision course in the second half but opens the concert with celebrations of their fulfillment. The Vocal Arts Ensemble takes the stage for Handel's Coronation Anthem: Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened, composed for the coronation of George II and Caroline, followed by Bach's Cantata 202, the elegantly lyrical wedding cantata with soprano Joelle Harvey.
Santora's eagerness to collaborate and his creative sense for programming are major attractions for artists. Soon Cho, who teaches voice at Baylor University in Texas, is inspired by the orchestra's collaborations and its conjuring of concepts that audiences enjoy. Santora is "a phenomenal musician who brings so many ideas to the table," Mark Panuccio says. And equally important, "he listens to what I bring." ©
Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra presents DIDO AND AENEAS at 2 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Hall Downtown. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.