‘Dido & Aeneas’ Theater Review: From Broadway to Opera, Kelli O’Hara Does It All

Last year’s Tony winner for “The King and I” takes a break from show tunes to go totally baroque

Ethel Merman and Mary Martin never tried this.

Tony winners Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark put aside their usual show tunes to sing Henry Purcell’s 17th Century opera, “Dido & Aeneas,” presented Thursday and Friday by Master Voices at the New York City Center.

Anyone who saw O’Hara and Clark together in Adam Guettel’s great musical “The Light in the Piazza” in 2005 won’t be surprised that they can sing opera. How well O’Hara sings baroque arias, however, is astounding. All the singers here are mic’d for the cavernous City Center, but it’s doubtful that O’Hara needs any amplification. Playing the Carthaginian queen of the title, she possesses not only the requisite size of voice but the legato needed to spin out Purcell’s long phrases.

Luciano Pavarotti once said of Ethel Merman that her voice had no register break. For a performer like O’Hara, who goes back and forth between Broadway and opera, the absence of such a break is remarkable. (FYI, she made her Met Opera debut last year in “The Merry Widow,” then went right into her Tony-winning turn in “The King and I.”)

Audra McDonald, another singer whose work spans both worlds, possesses essentially two voices. She uses them both in the current “Shuffle Alone”: a lower one for jazz, her upper register for the show’s moments of operetta. With the latter, however, there’s some uncomfortable shifting of gears as her voice descends.

O’Hara’s voice is seamless and pure.

Clark also has the chops, but takes a more Broadway approach to her sorceress role. Fans of Disney musicals would not be disappointed.

Elliot Madore offers a very virile but woofy-sounding Aeneas.

Doug Varone directs and choreographs, and brings much dance to the Purcell work. For those operagoers raised on Verdi and Puccini, baroque opera can seem unrelievedly languid. Varone’s dancers helped take up the slack, and not only give the stage needed movement but create remarkable tableaux, turning themselves into animals, props, and, finally, a funeral pyre.

Varone also brings great wit to the opera’s original opener, “The Daughters of Necessity: A Prologue.” It has nothing to do with the Dido and Aeneas story, except for a lot of nymph-like characters running around singing about fate. At various points, Clark’s character capriciously takes out a scissor to cut a long red piece of string. Someone in the chorus immediately drops dead and has to be dragged off the stage. It’s unexpected and very funny.

Because only the libretto from the opera’s prologue exists, Michael John LaChiusa has written new music, which had its premiere Thursday night. It sounds baroque. Better yet, it never overreaches for dramatic effect. LaChiusa should use a librettist more often.

Ted Sperling conducts.