For ‘Dido and Aeneas,’ Handel+Haydn takes a roadtrip
How do you perform an opera in Boston, New York, and back in Boston again in under 48 hours — and do it well?
It helps that Henry Purcell’s 17th-century classic, “Dido and Aeneas,” is as short as it is, rapidly telling the story of the exiled prince of Troy abandoning the queen of Carthage after she commits her heart — and a share of the kingdom’s reins — to him. To cap the just-under-an-hour performance, the queen dies from heartbreak.
Ironic for an opera about leaving (and never returning), Handel and Haydn Society took its semi-staged production on a 400-mile journey in an intense three-performance weekend that ends Sunday.
“It’s no different than being a rock band,” said artistic director Harry Christophers, with the sly smile of a favorite comparison. “It’s the same lifestyle.”
Twelve hours since wrapping up a Friday night performance at Jordan Hall — after loading up two tour buses with 13 baroque instruments, a trunk of music, four cases of water, two cases of beer, one case of wine, and suitcases — the 18-member choir, three guest soloists, 15 orchestra musicians, two directors, and three staffers waited for the bus’s air conditioning to be fixed.
It was nine hours until show time Saturday night at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Temple of Dendur in New York City, where the show would also be live-streamed.
On Sunday, the group is back at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall for an afternoon show.
“They are so up for it,” Christophers said.
The mini tour, which left nearly on time, is based on an approach the group took for a 2017 concert presentation of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers,” which saw the chorus visit Jordan Hall, the Met Museum, and Harvard’s Sanders Theatre in another whirlwind weekend.
“It was a knackering day, there’s no doubt about it” said Christophers, betraying his Kentish origins Tuesday as he reflected on the 2017 run during a rehearsal break.
“Get on a coach [bus] at ten o’clock. You arrive at two o’clock; you’ve got to snatch some lunch somewhere; you’re into as much rehearsal as you can get; you’ve got a performance. And then, straight out after a performance, you’re back on a coach again that gets back to Boston at one in the morning,” said Christophers. “Next day, you’ve got an afternoon performance.”
Ira Pedlikin, who has served as the group’s artistic planner for almost a decade, said the organization’s standard concert model is Friday night and Sunday afternoon, leaving one day open.
In all, it takes about 150 hours to plan for the trip, Pedlikin said — six months longer than usual.
And the partial staging of this performance (movement, costumes, lighting, a handful of props, but no sets) brought new complications and surprises to an already tightly packed schedule.
During Tuesday’s rehearsal at WGBH, two gaudy green and blue Costco beach chairs made their debut for the title characters’ picnic scene, as stage director Aidan Lang cracked a boyish smile. The titular queen of Carthage, though, was not having any of it.
“It’s too low, Aidan,” said mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, who also performed the role of Dido in Lang and Christopher’s two other joint productions of the opera. “It’s totally unregal and I’m not getting out of it!”
Hours before show time in Boston, Lang rushed over to Symphony Hall to burn a CD because Jordan Hall did not have anywhere for him to plug in a thumb drive with the thunder sound effect that spoils the picnic.
The staging also requires more movement from the soloists and performers than a concert performance. For instance, Matthew Brook, playing both a drunken sailor and a conniving sorceress, made his entrance Friday by scuffling through the audience like a tough guy wandering in off the street.
“You’re sitting in my seat,” he gruffly told a patron, who turned out to be the chairman of Handel and Haydn’s board. (The chairman, not recognizing the acclaimed
bass-baritone in costume, initially apologized and began gathering his things.)
Lang, who directs those movements as well as partly improvising the lighting, said he was forced to adapt the staging for a very different space in New York.
But the round trip was probably most intense for the performers themselves.
“We have an unusually long day ahead of us,” said baritone David McFerrin in a text from the bus Saturday — not long before the bus hit bad traffic.
McFerrin, who plays Aeneas and was also on the “Vespers” trip, said before the show Friday that as performance weekends go, “it’s more exhausting than most. It’s strenuous.”
For Reginald Mobeley, countertenor, that means 12 to 14 shots of espresso a day (though he said a normal day already requires 10).
To lighten the load and comply with the museum’s requirements, some of the additional Purcell works on the program were cut in New York.
“Dido and Aeneas,” among the earliest known English operas, is as capricious and mesmerizing as its namesake queen, with the shimmering baroque chamber orchestra turning on a dime. Just after Aeneas is led off-stage to romantic bliss, he is tricked into believing he must abandon Dido forever.
“Maybe our bus leaving Boston is Aeneas and his crew leaving Carthage …” Lang ventured at rehearsal Tuesday, chuckling.
But this time, just as quickly, they planned to return.
“Purcell ‘Dido and Aeneas’” will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 31, at Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St., Boston. handelandhaydn.org