Opera Piccola Brings ‘Dido and Aeneas’ to the Empire

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Steven Brennfleck plays the lead role of Aeneas with Jacquelyn Matava as Dido in the production of "Dido and Aeneas" by Opera Piccola of San Antonio at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre on Feb. 21-22. Photo by Kristian Jaime.

Steven Brennfleck plays the lead role of Aeneas with Jacquelyn Matava as Dido in the production of "Dido and Aeneas" by Opera Piccola of San Antonio at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre on Feb. 21-22. Photo by Kristian Jaime.

While the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts has become a staple venue for opera, ballet, and theater in San Antonio, performance art aficionados would be remiss to overlook the latest production by Opera Piccola of San Antonio taking place just a few blocks south this weekend.

Dido and Aeneas,” the Henry Purcell masterpiece, opens Saturday at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre. The baroque standard, based on Virgil’s poem “Aeneid,” is the second of three productions for the smaller, chamber opera company’s 2014-15 season and has showtimes all weekend.

Kristin Roach, music director of Opera Piccola and conductor for “Dido and Aeneas,” is well aware of the illustrious history of this libretto.

“Opera is one of the oldest art forms in the world,” said Roach. “One of the fabulous things about doing a piece with so much history is that the subject matter covers the founding of an ancient civilization. But there’s a universal truth in it that’s as human as you can get.”

Aeneas’ struggle between his love for Dido, the Queen of Carthage, or his duty to found a new Troy quickly collides. Factor in malicious witches beset on ending their romance, and you have a 327 year-old opera staple.

But as Dido must face the reality of losing her love to the sea, she quickly doubts if her handsome traveler truly deserves a place in her life at all.

“This isn’t just a beautiful story with equally beautiful music, this retelling touches people with ‘Dido’s Lament’ and is one of the giants of its particular time in history,” Roach said. “Every good opera has some good comic relief. Many of the world’s great stories, especially those designed to teach a lesson, approach that from different angles. This show does have drama, but it also has evil and archetypal characters.”

An actual baroque orchestra complete with a harpsichord will provide live music for the production — a detail that fans of the period will appreciate.

Jacquelyn Matava, who plays the lead role of Dido in the production, grappled with finding her unique take on an opera with such distinct lore. This task is made easier considering it is her third time performing it with as many companies.

Rainelle Kraus (left) plays Belinda with Jacquelyn Matava (right) as Dido in the production of "Dido and Aeneas" by Opera Piccola of San Antonio at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre on Feb. 21-22. Photo by Kristian Jaime.

Rainelle Krause (left) as Belinda and Jacquelyn Matava (right) as Dido in the production of “Dido and Aeneas” by Opera Piccola of San Antonio at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre on Feb. 21-22. Photo by Kristian Jaime.

“This is the perfect three-act tragedy put into a little less than an hour of music,” said Matava. “Singing this now means getting a combination of authentic, Baroque-style performances and instrumentation with modern twists on staging. Making it (my own) comes from my take on the character, the story and interpreting the text.”

Matava, an Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alumna, has put down some roots in San Antonio by joining the faculty of St. Mary’s University.

In a city that can boast two opera companies, the other being the recently founded Opera San Antonio, being cast as a lead role in her hometown is a professional blessing.

“It is so nice to come to a city with an opera company willing to use local talent,” explained Matava. “It is so common, especially in larger companies, to hire more exotic talent from out of state or international singers. It’s great to say that we can put together as wonderful and moving production from the talent around us.”

Co-stars, such as Steven Brennfleck as Aeneas and Rainelle Krause as Belinda, are testament to the region’s growing clout in the opera world.

The relationship between all three lead actors has been a product of knowing and working with one another for years.

“The chemistry between Dido and Aeneas is just as important as with Dido and Belinda. So it’s very fortunate that I know both people well. It made it so much easier jumping into roles with this person where you’re in love than if you’ve never even met,” Matava said.

It seems appropriate that one of the longest running operas to find resurgence on stages across the country should be performed in an equally historic venue. The Empire Theatre was established in 1913 as a vaudeville house. After repurposing, closing, and $5 million in renovations raised by the Las Casas Foundation, the 856-seat theatre was restored to its former glory complete with many of the famous design elements in 1998.

The variety of shows in the current season for the three year-old opera company has included works by Leonard Bernstein and the aforementioned Purcell. A battle royale, “Broadway Versus Opera,” will be staged in May.

Visit www.operapiccolasa.com for tickets and showtimes for Saturday and Sunday.

*Featured/top image: Steven Brennfleck plays the lead role of Aeneas with Jacquelyn Matava as Dido in the production of “Dido and Aeneas” by Opera Piccola of San Antonio at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre on Feb. 21-22. Photo by Kristian Jaime.

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