Seraphic Fire serves up a luminous “Dido and Aeneas”

By David Fleshler

“Dido And Aeneas” by Karel Skreta, 1670.

The Bronze Age love story between the Queen of Carthage and a Trojan prince fleeing his shattered city provided the plot for a dark but stylish evening of opera by the Miami choir Seraphic Fire.

The choir’s three-day run of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas opened Friday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, where the pagan invocations of Jove and Mercury took place incongruously under a large cross suspended over the performance space at the front of the church.

The opera, the oldest in the standard repertoire, tells the story of the romance of the queen and the prince, broken up by a sorceress whose motives were basically, well, why not? There was no set and only a few props–a scarf, a shroud, a wooden chest–but the performance led by Seraphic Fire founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley gave a luminous account of Purcell’s music and made the most of the opera’s thin dramatic material.

Directed by Joey Quigley, the conductor’s brother, the performance emphasized the darkest elements of the plot. The role of the Sorceress, sung by mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, was particularly well handled. In some productions the role is a vehicle for exaggeration and low comedy out of The Wizard of Oz, but in this one, Crider gave a finely wrought vocal and dramatic evocation of evil reveling in its own evil, elevating the level of seriousness of the performance and making the ending all the more tragic.

The role of Dido, Queen of Carthage, went to mezzo-soprano Misty Leah Bermudez, a Seraphic Fire veteran whose royal status was indicated by her glittering jewelry and regal manner. Bermudez gave an affecting performance of the early aria Ah, Belinda, taking advantage of the intimate space of the church to allow for subtlety of vocal expression. In the famous concluding aria When I am Laid in Earth, as the despairing queen bids goodbye to the world, Bermudez gave a performance that was more defiant and less despondent than most, emotional but with the emotions of a queen.

As the Trojan prince Aeneas, the baritone David McFerrin delivered the complete package–a commanding stage presence and a voice of seductive vocal beauty that made him a convincing object of the queen’s love. The soprano Kathryn Mueller was a vivacious stage presence in the role of Belinda, the queen’s lady in waiting, her manner and voice contributing a much-needed lighter element to the performance. Particularly fine was her Act 2 aria Thanks to these lonesome vales, where her agile soprano brought out the delicate beauty of Purcell’s music.

The opera’s ending was particularly effective and in keeping with the dark tone of the performance. As the chorus intones the last words, calling on cupids to stream the queen’s tomb with roses, the Sorceress and her two assistants, their awful work done, gravely take a red shroud, walk over to where the queen stands with her back to the audience and drape it over her.

Accompanying the performance was the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble affiliated with the choir, which gave one of its best efforts yet—taut, energetic and sonorous for its seven-member size. Cellist Russell Rolen gave a clean, naturally phrased and characteristically Baroque performance of the long complex bass line that accompanied the soprano Molly Quinn’s Act 2 aria as the Second Lady.

At the harpsichord was Avi Stein, music director of St. Matthew & St. Timothy Episcopal Church in New York and a faculty member at Juilliard and Yale, whose complex figurations—now energetic, now grim and sinister—enriched the performance throughout. The chorus did fine work, as you’d expect from Seraphic Fire.

Although the opera is in English, Seraphic Fire wisely provided projections of the text, since the often florid vocal writing made it difficult to understand all the words.

Seraphic Fire’s production of Dido and Aeneas repeats 8 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Boca Raton., 305-285-9060.

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Sat Feb 23, 2013
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