Review: ‘La Didone’

Watching the Wooster Group's "La Didone" is like witnessing the collision of tectonic plates. From one direction comes the 17th-century opera by Francesco Cavalli, retelling Virgil's legend of Dido and Aeneas.

Watching the Wooster Group’s “La Didone” is like witnessing the collision of tectonic plates. From one direction comes the 17th-century opera by Francesco Cavalli, retelling Virgil’s legend of Dido and Aeneas. From the opposite direction comes “Planet of the Vampires,” Mario Bava’s 1965 B-movie in which a spaceship crew is taken over by aliens. Under the watch of helmer Elizabeth LeCompte, the two artifacts crunch into each other, producing fusions and tremors and redefining the landscape. The collision produces more heat than light, but, typically for the Gotham company, the show’s weirdness is as fascinating as it is mind-boggling.

Although billed as a staging of Cavalli’s “La Didone,” the production is equal parts opera and movie-inspired play. Beneath the tiered screens of Ruud van den Akker’s modernist set, LeCompte’s actors stagger about in silver spacesuits as if dragged down by the force of gravity.

While Bava’s cult sci-fi pic plays out on TV monitors, the company acts it out word-for-word, mirroring the dreamy movements and strange pauses as Captain Mark Markary of the Argos leads his crew to the planet Aura, where a malign power makes them turn on each other.

At the same time, LeCompte sets a stripped-down version of the 1641 opera in motion. Performed in Italian, with English translation flashed on a screen (alongside dialogue from the film), it tells the story of Aeneas, who flees his native Troy for Carthage, where he has a passionate affair with Dido.

To complicate matters further, the singers are accompanied by a four-piece band that blends period instruments with electric guitar; the sounds are processed through a constantly shifting set of acoustic states by musical director Bruce Odland.

This is done with the Wooster Group’s characteristic technological brilliance. Actors appear to reach into the TV monitors which, just at the right times, show closeups of their hands.

Odland, meanwhile, creates a flawless blend of sound from the disparate sources of actors, singers, band and movie. The singing, notably by Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido, is highly accomplished, and the acting, even in the most preposterous B-movie moments, no less committed.

Bizarre though the combination of elements sounds, there are many moments of synchronicity, whether its Captain Markary venturing manfully toward an unknown planet while Aeneas boldly goes into a new land, or the women of “La Didone” comforting each other just as they are doing the same in the movie.

At one point, the force of Dido’s passion seems to send shockwaves to the crew of the Argos, as if the two stories were controlling each other. Both stories are played with an operatic seriousness, despite the silliness of the sci-fi silver costumes and faux-futuristic guns.

But the sheer sensory overload of it all may prove problematic for the audience. Neither the film nor the opera is widely known, and simply to follow either story requires concentration. That the two works are then reinterpreted and so dramatically juxtaposed leaves a vast amount of information to process.

The first casualty of this approach is humor: It’s often forgotten how humorous LeCompte’s work can be, and “Planet of the Vampires,” with its arch dialogue, camp physicality and otherworldly surrealism, could be very funny, if the audience weren’t too busy taking in everything else to see the jokes.

A further problem is that, for all their similarities, the stories are archetypally different and frequently refuse to illuminate each other. No doubt LeCompte found that just as interesting, but for the rest of us, the sense of bewilderment can be frustrating. “La Didone” is no less extraordinary for that, but the eccentricity lacks the joyfulness of the Wooster Group’s most rewarding work.

La Didone

Royal Lyceum Theater, Edinburgh; 658 seats; £30 ($60) top


A Wooster Group production of an opera in one act after "La Didone" by Francesco Cavalli and Giovanni Francesco Busenello. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Music direction, Bruce Odland.


Set, Ruud van den Akker; costumes, Antonia Belt; lighting, Jennifer Tipton, Gabe Maxson; sound, Matt Schloss; video, Zbigniew Bzymek, Joby Emmons. Opened and reviewed Aug. 18, 2007. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


With: Hai-Ting Chinn, Ari Fliakos, Jennifer Griesbach, Hank Heijink, Andrew Nolen, Kamala Sankaram, Scott Shepherd, Harvey Valdes, Kate Valk, Judson Williams, John Young.

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