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Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Context: Mark Morris: Two Operas
An evening of Britten and Purcell

The choreographer presents a double-bill: Britten’s Curlew River, featuring the MMDG Music Ensemble, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, featuring mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Context is everything, so get closer to the production through our series of curated links, videos, and articles. After you've attended the show, let us know what you thought by posting in the comments below and on social media using #MMDG.

Program Notes

Mark Morris: Two Operas
An Evening of Britten and Purcell
 (PDF)

Read

Article
Stephanie Blythe Sings Dido (BAM blog)
Soprano Stephanie Blythe talks to the BAM blog about her role singing Dido and the Sorceress.

Article
On Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (BAM blog)
Scholar Hugh Macdonald reviews the origins of Britten’s stirring (and oft-overlooked) music-drama.

Article
Doomed love affair makes 'irresistible' dance piece (MPR News)
“I still conduct barefoot because I over-perspire.” Discover more fun facts about the production in this Minnesota Public Radio interview with Mark Morris.

Watch & Listen

Audio
Mark Morris, Choreographing AND Conducting Japanese Street Dances & Baroque Tragedy (WNYC)
WNYC's Soundcheck sits down with the lauded choreographer.

Video
Dido and Aeneas Dancer Interviews - The Story (YouTube)
Laurel Lynch (Dido/Sorceress) and Domingo Estrada, Jr. (Aeneas) tell the opera’s story and offer insight into their characters.

Video
Mark Morris and Joan Acocella on Dido and Aeneas (YouTube)
An in-depth conversation between Mark Morris and New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella about the making of Dido and Aeneas.

Now your turn...

What did you think? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below and on social media using #MMDG.

24 comments:

  1. LIked Purcell; hated Britten. I usually like, sometimes love, Mark Morris' productions. I couldn't fathom why he decided to do Curlew River, as there wasn't anything I would call dancing and the body movement was so minimal, that nearly any layman could make those moved. I've always loved Dido and Aeneas and looked forward to it. The production was fascinating, innovative, humorous. the singing divine. Curlew River was like watching paint dry.

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    1. 100% right. Excruciating was the Britten. Brilliant in every way was Purcell.

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    2. I wish Mark had used dancers on stage and kept the singers in the pit for Curlew River, as he did with Dido and Aeneas. It seemed that he was overreaching by staging the singers, and they seemed uncomfortable in the starkness he was attempting. It came off as sloppy and stilted. I am left to wonder how he would have choreographed it had he released his expectations and challenged dancers to tell the tale. It felt like a junior level attempt at operatic direction, done at a second tier college.

      His take on Dido and Aeneas was nothing short of BRILLIANT, and worth the entire evening. Classic Morris confabulation and strange structure, spiderlike angles and webbing, self deprecating humor and referencing to all he's ever done, as well as nods and jeers to other famous pieces. I wanted to leap from the mezzanine! Absolutely thrilling, and glorious work by both the company as a whole and the featured dancers. THIS is what it's all about!

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    3. It's funny. My immediate reaction to the Britten was also "I didn't like it." Where I was sitting (mezzanine) on Friday evening after a long work week, the temperature was pretty warm. This along with the experience of being suffocated by someone who had decided to wear the whole bottle of perfume, made it pretty hard to stay with the piece, which is certainly a challenging piece.

      Yet in the time after seeing the performance, I was haunted by certain images and sounds in the piece, and found myself wishing to see it again. It aroused my curiosity and I went back and read the notes and did some thinking about the piece. However, thinking alone isn't for me where art lives. There were sounds and sights and movement that also stayed with me.

      However, I have admit, I forgot the heat, the perfume and my discomfort once "Dido" began. I was transported and gone, into the music and the movement. I immediately loved the piece and could see it again and again. And the dance Mr. Morris has made points me to the music,which I'm able to listen to in a different way. I am deeply grateful to Mr. Morris for his contributions to the planet. I feel enriched. Thank you, thank you.

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  2. Was Rome founded on the basis of fake news?

    Well, if you believe Henry Purcell's only opera, "Dido and Aeneas," the answer is yes. The foundation of Rome definitely stemmed from a serious incidence of fake news.

    Why bring this up now?  Well, fake news is definitely in the news and equally to the point, the Mark Morris Dance Group is currently performing Purcell's  opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music along with a short opera by Benjamin Britten called "Curlew River."

    Aeneas, a Trojan, has fled his homeland after the fall of Troy, heading in the direction of Italy. After about six years of effort, he and his men end up at Carthage, on the shores of North Africa, where he promptly falls for Dido, the queen, who is head-over-heels in love with him, more of less at first sight.  She wants him to marry her and remain in Carthage, to which he at first agrees.

    But a wicked sorceress who hates Dido (and all powerful, successful women for that matter) intervenes.  She disguises one of her witches as the messenger god Mercury and conjures up a powerful storm for good measure.  "Mercury," presumably sent by Jupiter, tells Aeneas he must leave for Italy immediately and Aeneas swallows this bit of fake news without question.

    Off he goes and Dido promptly commits suicide.  There you have it: not just the malicious nature of the fake news to which we are becoming accustomed, but a major cat fight as well.  Poor Dido.

    But .... one can argue that it is Nahum Tate, an Irish protestant poet credited with the libretto, who is the real purveyor of fake news because arguably the more authoritative account of the founding of Rome comes from Virgil. In Virgil's "Aeneid," Aeneas, on his way to Italy as instructed by the gods, does in fact land in Carthage and remains there in the arms of Queen Dido for a year.

    He only departs when Jupiter himself (not the sorceress) sends the real Mercury to tell him it's time to go and fulfill his destiny: the founding of Rome. Alas, Dido kills herself in this version too, but not before uttering a curse that means Carthage will forever be the enemy of Rome.  If you want to know how that turns out, fast-forward to the Punic Wars.

    But back to Mark Morris and his dancers, men and women dressed and made up to look the same: slit-skirt black dresses that were tied up to look like culottes for a dance by sailors, large silver earrings and lip color. The orchestra, at the BAM's opera house, met expectations; the singers led by Stephanie Blythe (Dido and the Sorceress) were excellent, and Morris' choreography was a delightful and often amusing interpretation.  All in all, a great evening out  -- fake news or not.

    But what about Britten's "Curlew River," not so much danced as walked?  It was inspired by the extreme aesthetic notions of the Japanese Noh form of musical drama -- and if you have ever watched a Noh performance, you know it is akin to watching grass grow.  Give me Purcell any day of the week!

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  3. Judging by some comments, Curlew River might not be for everybody, but it was definitely for me. I loved it completely and was spellbound by the beautiful music, gorgeous voices, elegant staging, wonderful musicians and the yes, choreography. It may have been more subtle but there was dance and movement throughout. Those group dances especially made me time travel for a minute to ancient mesopotamia. I wish I had given them a standing ovation but it felt awkward to do before the show was done and I thought they'd be back at the end. Anyway, to all involved, I totally got it and it was GORGEOUS.

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  4. This is the second time I have seen both performances. Curlew River was a moving dramatic piece and was never intended to be a dance performance. It was beautifully staged by Mark Morris utilizing is unique creative genius. The Purcell was wonderfully done with the typical Morris style many have come to love .

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  5. Love Mark Morris, as choreographer and inspired stage director.
    But much of the singing was unitelligible. These pieces were not written to be performed in enormous spaces and supertitles should definitely be used.

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  6. I wish BAM had supplied the libretto ahead of time even if only able to do so for those who purchased tickets through the web. For myself, supertitles would interfere with taking in the choreography and giving full ear to music I have come to love.

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    1. I wished they'd left the lights on so we could follow the libretto. I know, one is supposed to be watching the dancers, but from the 3rd row center of the mezzanine, 70% of the stage was blocked by the elaborate hair-do of the woman in front of me who insisted on sitting on the very front of her seat. After my neck arthritis kicked in to the point where I couldn't angle my head to see the center of the stage, I closed my eyes and just listened. The Curlew River is a beautiful score; so is Dido and Aeneas. From what I could see of the edges of the stage during the Purcell, Mark Morris is doing pretty much the same choreography he was doing 20 years ago. I find it unsubtle and unimaginative, emphasizing the gross outline of the music instead of discovering its nuances as, say, Paul Taylor or Balanchine would do. In the Purcell, the strings were not always in tune. Stephanie Blythe, et al., were fantastic, however, as was the chorus in the Britten.

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    2. It's always frustrating being part of a live performance because of the bits one can't control. And though recordings are bound to be much more flawless, we always return to the high of seeing something live, imperfect as it may be.

      I do agree that I wish I could see more of the libretto. There were some points in Dido when the lights were higher and we could see a bit more of the page. Supertitles would have been nice as well.

      But I can't agree with your assessment of Mark Morris as a choreographer. As a string player, I actually find Morris's choreography to be much more involved with and responsive to the music that he selects than Paul Taylor (who I also love as well.) He visualizes themes, motifs, and harmonies in an incredibly sensitive way that I'm not sure any other choreographer does. Others may "feel" the music but Morris truly understands it from a musical theoretical standpoint, which I think is his genius.



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  7. I didn't like Curlew river. I found the story, the dance (no dance) uninteresting and above all the music very boring, all in the same tone. I almost left. I really enjoyed the second part especially the singing which was amazing. Too bad we can't see the singers.

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  8. I second (third?) the vote for supertitles. They were desperately needed for the Purcell; our section was full of people squinting at the libretto in the program, myself included. The Britten grew on me, and I enjoyed the thematic links with Billy Budd (another much-enjoyed BAM production); Dido and Aeneas had it all, a very witty and watchable interpretation. I had a busy week and somehow missed that Stephanie Blythe would be involved - what an amazing surprise! A true privilege to see her perform. All in all a wonderful evening, worth the endless trip home on the disastrous D!

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  9. My wife and I loved the second opera, Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." It had wonderful, fun aspects that were familiar from seeing prior Mark Morris productions. The Britten "Curlew River" was another story. There was no dance and it was tough to sit through. We almost left after it was over. Glad we stayed for the Purcell.

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  10. I thought Curlew River was an odd choice, a bit tone-deaf culturally speaking. The performers were excellent but the piece is very problematic.

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  11. Curlew River was a beautiful production: the music, the singing, and the staging. It is NOT typical Mark Mortis "dance" ...these other commenters who were surprised and almost left(!) must not have realized what they were getting tickets for. Hopefully, if they were open to it in experiencing the performance, they would realize it's a different aspect of the same "Mark Morris" they love. He is a complex artist, with many aspects to his genius. I loved it, along with Dido and Aeneas, which is such a classic work of his greatness. Incredible to experience both of them in one evening. Thank you to BAM for another amazing production. (Also, for the commenter who wanted to see the singers and musicians in the orchestra pit, you must sit up higher, front row in the balcony. From there we could also see Mark Morris conducting the MMDG Ensemble...! Fun.)

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  12. I'm not quite sure what the appeal of Britten's operatic oeuvre is, monotonous and declamatory it seems like a cultural dead end. I was seriously underwhelmed by the vocal cliches and the lackadaisical choreography. It was a relief to find that my theater going partner actually enjoyed it, as he had come at my insistence. Dido and Aeneas, on the other hand, was brilliant and more than made up for it. The opera was presented in a unique way. The dancing was inspired and the singing superb ... but I wonder why the words were so completely unintelligible, was it the singers' technique? the acoustics? I have heard this opera sung much more articulately.

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  13. One of the best evenings at BAM in quite a while. The pairing of Britten with Purcell was interesting: English opera from the 20th century using Japanese Noh back to Purcell using stylized 20th century movement.

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  14. I'm relieved to see that others found Curlew River problematic. I appreciate Britten's desire to explore Eastern theatrical forms, but out of context it almost seems like a parody of an avant-garde opera. I knew Dido and Aeneas would be wonderful, but I feel as if it was used as bait to get us to watch 100 minutes of an aspirational misfire.

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  15. I loved both operas. I had previously seen Dido & Aeneas with Mark Morris playing Dido (nobody can dance this role as well as he did). Stephanie Blythe was amazing! Curlew River was great: beautiful production, great singers. I love Britten and had never heard this piece before. Thanks to Mark Morris and BAM for this great double bill!

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  16. I actually loved Curlew River. The singing of Isaih Bell, and all the singers. The staging was beautiful. Having this small orchestra onstage and allowing for interaction between instrumentalists and singers. The music has wonderful chant like passages and overall it is extremely moving. And the movement of the singers was very effective. On this occasion, i felt i enjoyed Morris choreographing singers much better than i enjoyed his choreography of dancers on the second piece.

    Dido of course is a masterpiece. I thought the orchestra played brilliantly. Stephanie Blyth was magnificent. All the singers in the pit were very good.
    Of the dancers, Domingo Estrada was awesome (He always is) and Laurel Lynch was great. Alot of the choreography was beautiful, but in some places Mark got a bit silly. Its one of trademarks and i usually enjoy it. But this time he was too silly for me!

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  17. I loved both. Curlew River is of course a far harder sell than Dido, being inherently far more somber and culturally complex because of its layers of Noh, parable, and Christian homily. But it is a beautiful and haunting piece and was brilliantly performed by both singers and orchestra without a conductor. Having prepared the work myself at Juilliard, I know its difficulty and dangers. These performers were walking on the highest, slenderest of tightropes, and I found their poise and pathos thrilling. And let's give the singers some credit here for moving beautifully and eloquently. Obviously the dancing in Dido was far more virtuosic, far more glamorous. But they were dancers, for God's sake! They had a conductor! The music was based on dance-rhythms! That said, I loved the Dido too: witty, silly, and illustrative of the text in a very 18th-century way. Morris's conducting and the orchestra' stylish playing were a delight. Blythe was a force of nature, next to whom the other singers seemed earnest but pallid. But may I say, I preferred her Sorceress to her Dido? Ferocity suits her.

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  18. I was torn the entire evening between the music and the dancing. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, in both operas. Special mention to Stephanie Blythe - always such a presence! But I was very disappointed by what was going on on stage. It was the first time I attended a Mark Morris show – and what I saw did not really make me feel like going back…
    I can totally enjoy minimalism, but in the Britten piece, these white costumes, white walls and furniture made it very difficult for me to connect with the story.
    The Purcell piece was way worse. I read after the show, in the program notes, that the piece was first staged in 1989… well, it shows. Some pieces should remain where they belong: in the past. I found the staging quite ugly (these neo-classical columns… hugh…). I can see why gender-bending costumes and make up must have been quite revolutionary back in the 1980s, but in 2017 New York this is just cliché – or even exploitative. And I wonder why the director thought that it would be a good idea to have his performers grin at the audience – such a cheap laugh for a dramatic piece… And the dancers taking these “inspired”, “Greek” pauses looked ridiculous to me, more like telenovela actors than heroes from the Antiquity trying to cope with the evil sorcerer’s curse… at some point I tried to stop looking at the stage to focus on the musicians.
    Really, brilliant music throughout, but a very disappointing evening on the stage.

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  19. This production of Curlew River did the composer B. Britten a disservice and was an aberrant portrayal of a sublime piece of Music and vocalization . I saw it initially a few years ago as performed by Ian Bostridge ( as part of the Lincoln Center White Lights Festival ) . The depth of that performance at the Chapter House at St John the Divine made we wish to see it again, so it was with high anticipation that i came to BAM from Philly bringing a couple of friends in tow since i had raved about the opera and they were happy to come along on my recommendation. Dance does not work willy nilly with opera and should be a very thoughtful and considered choice . The music and the ethos of Curlew river was dealt a FATAL blow in this production.....it was not just the wild man who had abducted the protagonist's child of tender age in the opera that came to mind. Morris has absconded with a tender and beautiful piece of music and literally killed it on stage . These are harsh words but i am afraid that is how outraged i feel at the on stage shenanigans that occurred ...In addition what was the symbolism with the opening and closing of the white umbrella that was so stilted and distracting and the sounds of the making of the paper cut out birds that was amplified on the speakers ?? ... if the white symbolized the soul of the dead son( since that was what it appeared to be in the end when she was forcibly separated from the umbrella) it was a conceit that did not really work and added insult to injury .... Morris should be asked to justify why he attempted such a killer production...... the beauty and vulnerability of the music was totally submerged under a tidal wave of egotistical additions that devastated a fragile and ephemeral opera ..... try to see the Ian Bostridge version if it graces American shores again . Dido and Aeneas was Morris at his best , but the bad taste from Curlew River will i am afraid linger in my memory long after the exceptional singing by Blythe and the others , the excellent Morris choreography ( with the symbolism of the gestures taken from S. Indian dance ) , and the facile and elegant dancers in Dido and Aeneas has slipped from my memory .

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