A pair of lovers. An evil sorceress. A doomed affair. The plot of Henry Purcell's 1689 opera "Dido and Aeneas" is classic stuff.
And when acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris debuted his minimalist but deeply dramatic dance adaptation of Purcell's opera with a live orchestra and singers in 1989, critics said he made the tale of the ill-fated Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her lover, the warrior Aeneas, timeless.
Twenty two years after the piece's premiere in Belgium and more than a decade after it was last performed in Berkeley, Morris' sublime interpretation of Purcell's opera made its return to UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Friday night.
It was the first in a three-day run and the debut of Cal Perfomances' 2011-2012 season.
It also introduced the Bay Area to Morris as conductor, nimbly guiding San Francisco's early music ensemble the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and its chorale. He also coaxed spectacular displays from opera heavyweights including lauded mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and baritone Philip Cutlip and rising soprano Yulia Van Doren, who were tucked into the orchestra pit.
Their incredible singing performances were a lot for Morris' exquisite dancers to live up to, and they mostly did. The night's most exhilarating match was Blythe, singing the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress, and Amber Star Merkens, the long-limbed, spiral-haired dancer who embodied the unfortunate queen and her dark counterpart on stage.
But in her black sleeveless gown and long, shiny metallic fingernails, Merkens cast her own spell.
She gave the audience a widow in conflict whose body burns with longing. Against the backdrop of set designer Robert Bordo's spare sky and simple low-lying benches, the bare-chested Domingo Estrada, Jr. as Aeneas, did his best to woo the grieving Dido. Counseled by her sister Belinda, played by a graceful Maile Okamura and sung by Van Doren, Dido finally accepts Aeneas' amorous advances.
But the real fireworks start in the dark cave of a scheming sorceress.
Well, not a cave exactly, but long inky drapes held up by ominous silver arrows forming the backdrop to a tableaux of mischief and black magic.
The elegance of the first scene's breathtaking choreography, where the dancers recall angular figures on ancient Greek vases, was replaced in this and others by deliciously wicked movements. The chorus of dancers-cum-witches stumble about in dim light as if blind, their hands shielding their eyes. A now wild-haired Merkens is the Sorceress, writhing in fits, her hands and feet noisily slapping the ground.
She is the opposite of the tragic heroine, and the embodiment of jealousy, mischief and power who delights in inspiring her followers to pantomime the terrible actions she takes to separate Dido and Aeneas. Ultimately, she brings the heroes down with a dirty trick.
Meanwhile, the enamored pair were alone on the stage slowly making love. It's tantalizing to think of how this scene appeared in the past with Morris dancing his heart out in the role of the queen.Then, as now, it was all too brief. The couple were by themselves for only a few minutes before they were joined by the chorus, and Aeneas left Dido to fulfill his destiny at sea.
Soon, the sorceress and the witches gleefully returned to gloat over the seperation.
Those were the evening's most electric moments. The chorus cackled and chattered like cawing crows as they celebrated the couple's undoing. Things even got a little funky. Dancer Michelle Yard busted out the Running Man, an 80's dance move, as she and the others celebrated their triumph.
Spontaneous, largely unscripted moments such as those confirmed "Dido and Aeneas" is the work of a contemporary master who has turned an inspired adaptation of a 322-year-old opera into a heartbreaking -- and sometimes funny -- modern classic.
'Dido and aeneas'
Cal Performances presents Mark Morris Dance Group in the Henry Purcell opera with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and baritone Philip Cutlip
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 17 and 3 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph, Berkeley
Tickets: $30-$110, 510-642-9988 or www.calperformances.org