In 1979, Boston Camerata became the first company in the world to record Henry Purcell’s tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” using period instruments. A celebration of that landmark recording’s 40th anniversary had long been in the offing for Camerata’s 2020-21 season. But in keeping with the trends this year, things didn’t go precisely as planned.
The ’79 recording created “a new way of looking" at Purcell’s piece, said Camerata director Anne Azéma in a phone interview this week. ″Now in 2020 ... we have created this new way of presenting this chamber opera."
Starting Saturday, Camerata is presenting “Dido and Aeneas: An Opera for Distanced Lovers” — a virtual staged performance made with the combination of a principal cast (recorded live at Longy School of Music) and original silent films. Ticketholders can also drop in on a pre-concert talk by MIT emeritus professor and baroque opera expert Ellen T. Harris, plus a post-concert conversation with Azéma and multimedia designer Peter Torpey.
Like many companies, Camerata had its season planned before COVID forced a complete overhaul, and “Dido” was to be a highlight. The late 17th-century opera dramatizes a famous story of lost love from Virgil’s “Aeneid” concerning the abandonment of Dido, queen of Carthage, by the Trojan prince Aeneas. By far, its best-known moment is the final scene, in which Dido dies singing the sorrowful showstopper “When I am Laid in Earth.”
But an “ad hoc performance, made at home in our PJs” held zero appeal, Azéma said. “I know this approach was very helpful to some, but I wasn’t interested in reconnecting with our public that way.”
Azéma was already thinking about deepening Camerata’s commitment to theatrical productions. Now she saw a new creative opportunity, combining her musical directing experience with Torpey’s vision for a digital experience.
After getting COVID tests, principal singers recorded together at Longy last week, and Azéma’s stage directions incorporated distancing and masking. In fact, everyone in the ensemble and crew was masked except for the principals when singing. “I am very grateful because we had a fantastic cast who was willing to continue our work, even under the pressures and the demands of this terrible and difficult time,” Azéma said.
One last-minute adjustment proved necessary during the recording process. A 12-person ensemble of Harvard University singers had already recorded the opera’s choral selections over Zoom, using a continuo recording provided by the Camerata. However, syncing up the prerecorded “Zoom choir” tracks with the live musicians at Longy proved impossible, Azéma explained. She solved the problem by quickly putting together a quartet of local vocalists who could join the principal cast in person and sing masked.
“The moral of the story is that it’s so much better to make music live, and we look forward to the next time we can make music live,” Azéma said.
Performing the lead in “Dido” is Sri Lanka-born mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare, a Longy alumnus (now based in Natick) who makes her Camerata debut with this production. Baritone Luke Scott, a Camerata regular, sings the part of Aeneas. And of course, the Camerata players are on hand with their usual period instruments.
The result is a digital opera “trying to give justice to this idea of distance and separation,“ Azéma summarized. “It definitely is a 2020, COVID-era production.”
DIDO AND AENEAS: AN OPERA FOR DISTANCED LOVERS
Premiering Nov. 14, 6 p.m. Available through Nov. 29. bostoncamerata.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.