Alumnus director tinkers with tragic love tale

As the audience filed into the Don Evans Black Box Theater to watch Lyric Theatre’s production of “Dido & Aeneas,” it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary night at the opera. Cast members in gaudy formal wear greeted the audience like expected guests. As people were ushered in, characters conversed with each other around a giant dinner table in the middle of the stage. The elegant mood of the play was set before anyone was even there to watch it.

When the seats were finally filled, the audience enjoyed an adaptation of the tragic opera full of heartbreaking music and unique visual ideas. The story of two lovers destined to be apart, “Dido & Aeneas” used the dinner party as a modern prologue and then shifted into the ancient setting of the story.

Director and production designer Aaron Cromie, a College alumnus who graduated in 1994, explained that the prologue was used to introduce the story to the audience in an understandable fashion.

“We thought it might be fun to warm the audience up to what they’ll see,” he said.

In addition, the production took advantage of the open set-up of the Don Evans Theater by constantly reconfiguring the set design. Pieces of the set were used for multiple purposes and scenes were switched in a matter of seconds. Puppetry and masks were also relied on for key sequences and provided impressive visuals. For an opening night performance, the transitions and use of props seemed natural and splendidly creative.

“Our goal was to have (the original additions) enhance the story, not distract from it,” Robert Guarino, the show’s producer and musical conductor, said. Guarino, who directed Lyric Theatre’s two previous productions, discussed how he and Cromie decided to collaborate on “Dido & Aeneas.”

“(The College has) never done a baroque opera before,” he said. “I’ve known (Cromie) since the early ’90s, and we talked, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

The story of a mutual affection that is interrupted by the will of sinister witches, “Dido & Aeneas” features many soulful solos that require an exceptional vocal range. The role of Dido is a daunting one, but Pia Vanderstreet, junior music education major who has never performed in an opera before, handled it in stride.

“We’ve been learning the stuff since the summer,” Vanderstreet said. The singer, who packed the role with heavy emotion, said that the dated material started to resonate once rehearsals began.

“It was a hard process,” she admitted, “but after running through it, it started to make a lot more sense.”

Vanderstreet and the rest of the cast were assisted by Guarino’s conduction of the orchestra. Music played throughout the hour-long show and kept the mood of austerity in place.

“It was a lot more fun to use transitional music,” Cromie, who called the use of the orchestra in the production “very intimate,” said.

“Dido & Aeneas,” which will have three more productions this weekend, entertained the audience on its opening night by putting a new spin on a timeless love story. Guarino said that the student actors were a large part of their success.

“The students are very enthusiastic and willing to try new things,” he said. “They really rose to the occasion.”