By PHILIP H. FARBER Correspondent
OPUS 40, the huge landscape sculpture in Saugerties, is a magical setting all by itself, an exciting place to wander through and explore. It's also been a great setting for concerts, over the years.
Now, area chorale group Ars Choralis will be bringing a performance of some magical music to the Fite Road landmark, a concert version of Henry Purcell's opera, "Dido and Aeneas," on Saturday evening.
"The music fits the monument," says Ars Choralis Director Barbara Pick-hardt. "The scenes are comfortable in their places, where they are being sung from. The audience will hear the music coming from many different areas, from above them, from in front of them, to the side. At one point there is an echo chorus
that is in the trees, hidden behind the audience, and the chorus will be singing from the area near the orchestra and the echo will come from behind the audience. It's an amazing effect. It's in the music. The music just seems to work there. It's almost as if the music wants to be heard from this place."
ARS CHORALIS has a history of performances at the bluestone sculpture and this opera comes as a natural extension of the group's history.
"I have been the conductor for 24 years and a singer before that," Pickhardt explains. "We sang a lot of madrigals and Renaissance music in the early days of the group. We sang at Opus 40. We would meander among the stones and stop and sing a couple of madrigals. People would gather around and listen and then we would move to another place. It was an extraordinary connection ... of the music and the stones, the whole creation of Opus 40 and the music we were singing. I've always felt that early music belonged at that place. I have had a dream of doing the music from 'Dido and Aeneas' at some point in my life. It just all materialized in the last couple years. I mentioned it to Johanna Hall, who is the president of Ars Choralis, and she picked up on it and immediately thought it was a great idea. She spoke to Tad Richards (curator of Opus 40) and he thought it was a great idea. It just kind of mushroomed from there. Other people picked up on the idea and it is now happening. It's just been a long-held dream of mine to have this music at that particular place. It's extraordinary. It's actually going to happen."
THE CONCERT VERSION of "Dido and Aeneas" is not a staged opera, but will incorporate a unique concept of presentation inspired by the sculpture.
"It is a concert presentation," Pickhardt tells us, "but the music moves from place to place using what Harvey Fite created, his artistic sense of motion in the sculpture, the curves, the stones, the various levels, the crevices, the way the light plays on it. All of that is used in the presentation in that each scene is presented from the place that it fits best."
The way the concert is presented will also be fairly unique among Opus 40 concerts. "The audience will be sitting in the amphitheater, so they will be looking south at the obelisk," Pickhardt explains ... "Usually people come from the house and concerts are done with people sitting on the lawn and looking northward, apparently. This will be just the opposite. The whole concert is presented using the hill, the monument, the cliff, there's a small grove, some trees in one little area, and we use that... So the music moves from place to place. The witches scene is elevated above everyone else. They are on a plateau, a circular ridge beneath the obelisk, so that it is almost mystical to hear their singing coming from that place."
THE CONCEPT was created by Rckhardt along with Ars Choralis members and associates Stephen Kitsakos, Johanna Hall, Ed Peters, and Arthur Fama. For this production, Ars Choralis will feature 33 singers and a six-piece instrumental ensemble.
"There are 30 in the chorus and three singers who are not members of the chorus," the director says. "Two are very connected to Ars Choralis, they are local people: Jan Evers-Davies is singing the part of the sorceress and Cecilia Keehn is singing the part of Belinda. Soprano John Eapusta has soloed for us in our last two concerts and just stopped the show each time. He's an extraordinarily gifted young man. He's going to sing the part of the Spirit. All the other singers are members of Ars Choralis. All but Dido will be singing in the
chorus. We have an orchestra of very fine instrumentalist string players from the Hudson Valley Philharmonic and the Albany Symphony. It’s just a small ensemble of six people. Mary Jane Cory is the harpsichordist. She is very well known in this area. She is a professor at New Paltz, a specialist in early music, and a very gifted musician."
"DIDO AND AENEAS" is a mythic tale of tragic love and sorcery.
Dido is the queen of Carthage and Aeneas is a prince of Troy," Pickhardt says. "His boat, because of a storm, is thrown off course and he lands in Carthage. They strike up a love affair. There's a group of witches who are very jealous of Dido. They plot to get rid of Aeneas by sending one of their own, masked, as
a spirit, as a messenger from Jove, who tells Aeneas that he must leave immediately to save Troy. Aeneas believes him and goes to Dido and says he must leave. Of course, she is very upset. She can't live without him.
Eventually he becomes apologetic and wants to change his mind ... At that point she says "That you have once thought of leaving me is enough. My life is over.' Indeed, she does die at the end. We don't know, in the myth, if she commits suicide or just dies from a broken heart... It has a sad ending."
The music of Henry Purcell is dramatic, early baroque music.
"The music is certainly engaging," Pickhardt explains. "The soloists have very dramatic dialogue to sing and the choral parts are charming and engaging. My singers have all fallen in love with the music. It colors the words. In music we call it 'word painting.' Purcell would take a word like 'storm' and color it so that when the singers actually sing it, it sounds stormy. Much of it is light and airy and yet other parts are minor and very dramatic.