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Haymarket Opera performs well but lands awkwardly on its ‘Dido’ padding

In less than a year and a half since its first production, Haymarket Opera Company has done the incredible if not the unimaginable. It has found an enthusiastic audience, sold out every performance of its four offerings, garnered deserved critical acclaim, made excellent use of the Mayne Stage music space in Rogers Park and offered Baroque instrument playing both disciplined and with the essential freedom that makes this centuries-old music breathe anew.

After presenting rarities — two by Handel and one of Charpentier — in 2011 and 2012 Haymarket selected a beloved if infrequently performed cornerstone of the repertoire, Henry Purcell’s 1689 “Dido and Aeneas,” for its first run in 2013. This was a daring choice. This brief score, which survives only in incomplete and disputed form, presents many challenges. Do you present it paired with another work to fill out an evening? Attempt to complete the missing parts? How do you stage the largely static libretto? And unlike the previous little-known works, “Dido’s” music, from its instrumental passages and choruses to its greatest hit, “When I am laid in earth” (aka “Dido’s Lament’), is well known and widely recorded.

Professional mountings here, whether by visitors — Les Arts Florissant in 1993 and Mark Morris Dance Group in 1996 — or local stalwarts Music of the Baroque (every ten years, 1990, 2000, and 2010) and Chicago Opera Theater (2006) have chosen basically to give us what was produced in the century after Purcell’s early death in 1695, the three acts, an hour if that, with other works of Purcell or his contemporaries for a first half.

Haymarket founder and musical director Craig Trompeter and regular stage director Ellen Hargis decided instead to stretch the work by having Hargis create three danced and sung “masques” to replace the never-published score for a prologue and to add and flesh out plot twists. Other missing music has also been remade, all coming from Purcell, except one guitar work from his Italian contemporary Francisco Corbetta.

It’s a noble idea as well as a challenging one, but it’s often a stretch too far. The opening masques — for Aeneas, Dido and supporting cast — are delightful and attractively staged. By adding half hour at the outset and 15 minutes within the body of the work, though, and then inserting an intermission in the midst of the compact work we know from Purcell, both intensity and contrast are often lost. The main torso of the work is too brief to be broken up, especially when Hargis says in her program note that her goal is to boost the drama of the work.

A new contributor, Sarah Edgar, has joined the team to incorporate more Baroque dance and gesture into Haymarket’s attempts at taking us back in time. Much of this works on first viewing, especially Edgar’s own turn as a silent, wholly charming Cupid, and only one small, aggressively mimed transition between acts falls wholly flat. But, along with much more complex — and moving and rotating — sets by David Mayernik and rich costumes by Meriem Bahri and wigs by Samantha Umstead, this often also takes us away from Purcell’s music. That is all performed wonderfully in both electric and woeful passages by Trompeter from baroque cello, eight additional strings led by violinist and co-founder Jeri-Lou Zike, and theorbo and baroque guitar Michael Leopold and harpsichord Michael Beattie rounding out the continuo.

Soprano Kimberly McCord captures Queen Dido’s many contrasting moods. Peter van de Graaff’s bass-baritone and tall stature elevate Purcell’s oddly small part of the queen’s Trojan warrior/lover Aeneas. Company mainstay mezzo Angela Young Smucker as the Sorceress is a show-stealer for her humor as well. Sopranos Kelly Ballou (Belinda) and Kayleen Sanchez (a Mercury-impersonating spirit) and tenor William Bouvel round out the main parts, with five additional singers completing the chorus.

Telemann’s 1725 German-language comedy “Pimpinone” is on deck next, Oct. 4 and 5, allowing the company to present us with another work we’ve never seen.

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