American Opera Theater, one of the region's (and the nation's) most innovative opera companies, has done it again. Directed by Timothy Nelson, the company has put together a double bill of unlikely one-act operas: Melissa Dunphy's 2008 The Gonzales Contata and Henry Purcell's 1688 Dido and Aeneas. A strange pairing but it works, due largely to Nelson's choreographic direction.
Recently composed by Dunphy while an undergraduate at West Chester University, The Gonzales Contata is a political satire cobbled together from passages in the 2007 Senate hearings concerning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The satire is cartoonish, with senators playing hide-and-seek and throwing paper airplanes at each other. The male senators are played by females; the single female on the Judiciary Committee (Senator Feinstein of California) is played by a male (with brio by Brady Del Vecchio). Amidst the fun, there is a hilarious aria for Gonzalez ("I Cannot Recall") and an oddly moving hymn to America at the end, once the ambitious politician has fallen from power. The score drags at moments, deteriorating into the grade-B horror movie soundtrack that seems to be the lot of much contemporary music. But Nelson's mock-martial staging maintains the production's verve and soprano Molly Young turns the hapless Gonzales into an almost tragic figure.
The production of Dido+Aeneas is the evening's highlight. Nelson has transposed the tale from classical antiquity to the present. In front of a bare black table, a housewife struggles with a tottering marriage (to businessman Aeneas) and the psychological demons within her. The original witches, spirits, and messengers of the original libretto are transformed into forces lodged within the mind of the troubled woman. Behind a scrim, the darkened chorus embellishes the decline and suicide of the protagonist. Both vocally and dramatically, Emily Noel provides a riveting portrait of a tormented and abandoned woman. Unfortunately, the Aeneas (Jason Buckwalter) delivers a more pedestrian performance. The Purcell score only gains in pathos and purity in this radical transposition of the action.
As usual, Nelson has wisely chosen his supporting forces. Supporting soloists and expert choruses are provided by the Handel Choir of Baltimore and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. The Ignoti Dei Orchestra provides moving accompaniment for the Purcell, although the baroque ensemble struggles with the atonal lurches of Gonzales.