Two short tragic operas, composed in England 250 years apart, formed the harrowing, extraordinarily beautiful double bill that began the Long Beach Opera’s new season at the Convention Center’s Center Theater Sunday afternoon. Aside from their shared nationality, the two works cast a remarkable set of reflections on one another.
In Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” the romance between the two principal characters is thwarted when Aeneas and his Trojans set out to sea to fulfill their destiny. In Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Riders to the Sea,” the sea swallows up the four sons of Maurya, leaving her to face a solitary destiny.
Linking the two operas may seem like a stroke of genius on the part of impresario Michael Milenski — which it certainly was — but it was a brilliant practical stroke as well.
Give or take a few minor adjustments, both works call for the same cast groupings; both make their leading soprano the focus. Janice Felty, who sang the jilted Dido in the Purcell opera and the four-times bereaved mother in the Vaughan Williams, cut an extraordinary figure in both works, her voice richly colored with tragic accents, her stage manner modest and intense. It was her afternoon.
But it wasn’t hers alone. The staging was by Tanya Hinkel, choreographer making her first foray into operatic staging, and covering her efforts with something close to glory.
The works were, indeed, choreographed; shadowy figures spaced throughout the hall created a sinuous framework for the central action.
The operas came across brilliantly, splendidly buoyed by a small but efficient orchestra under Roderick Shaw. Baritone James Demler was the Aeneas in the first opera and Bartley, the last of the sons, in the second.
Purcell’s 50-minute opera is reasonably well-known; the Vaughan Williams (based on the short play by John Millington Synge) was a real discovery, a darkly colored, haunting 35 minutes of tragic outcry, capped with an extraordinary solo for the tragic mother at the end.
No recording exists of the work. All the more credit to Milenski’s forces, acting under the aegis of the UK/LA Festival, for making audiences aware that there are still great operas out there worthy of discovery.