Chen Shi-Zheng's production of Henry Purcell's ''Dido and Aeneas" for the Handel & Haydn Society closes with splendid stagecraft. Aeneas has left Carthage and Dido, its queen, to found Rome; Dido, abandoned on her island, welcomes her own death in one of the greatest arias of the 17th century, then reclines on a bier as Scott Zielinski's lighting creates magic fire to consume her and the island, an image eerily reflected in the pool of water that fills the stage floor. Ultimately projections of water rise to vanquish the fire.
Purcell probably composed his modest little opera for performance in a school for girls. Many elements of the score -- the gleeful cackling of witches, the sailor's rowdy song -- seem designed for youthful performers to have fun with. And the tragic utterances make their effect because they are so unpretentious; Purcell's technique is sophisticated but he uses it to put raw emotion in your face.
Chen's production is conceptual and pretentious. There's all that water, for example -- onstage water is in danger of becoming the early 21st-century stage's cliche of choice, like sunglasses late in the 20th -- director Peter Sellars has already used the device at least three times. In the midst of the pool stands Dido's island, which looks like a winged sea monster with white lilypads for its scales. In the discussion afterward, Chen said the shape came from a sheet of paper set designer Walt Spangler had crumpled; it did take the light beautifully.
Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes put the chorus in flowing white, shapeless garments; the sorceress and witches carry pink beach buckets with matching scoops, and their outfits have a crocodile look. Dido wears flowing, transparent robes, and buff shirtless Aeneas looks like a candidate for Mr. Leather Bar, wearing cargo pants with lots of buckles, straps, studs, and zippers. Everyone except dignified Dido romps around in the water, splashing carefully to avoid sloshing the orchestra. (Conductor and design team take their curtain calls barefoot, trousers hiked up.)
The show is beautiful to look at, and the elaborate arm and hand gestures Chen devised for the dance episodes are intermittently fascinating. Purcell invites some silliness, and Chen supplies it -- the sailor arrives toting a bright orange surfboard. But too much of the production fails to connect on any meaningful level to the music, the text, or the volatile emotional temperature. It makes everything that is immediate in the opera feel curiously remote and isolated, like Dido on her island.
The musical performance is respectable, and sometimes better than that, as in the plangent cello playing of Guy Fishman, in the work of the orchestra and chorus, and in the natural, straight-from-the shoulder singing and acting of mezzo Paula Murrihy as Dido -- no intrusive diva details at all. Baritone Nmon Ford brings spectacular presence to Aeneas and sings resonantly enough to make you wish Purcell had given him more to do. Sopranos Heather Buck and Shannon Larkin sing capably as attendants but fail to deliver many words; Deborah Rentz-Moore as the Sorceress and her witch companions do a little better without offering much vocal glamour. Tenor Ryan Turner seems to enjoy himself as the sailor. Conductor Grant Llewellyn leads a secure but square performance. This music takes its rhythm, tempo, character, and energy from the words, and only Murrihy and Ford consistently deliver them.
The whole event, ambitious and interesting as it is, cannot stand up to memories of a previous ''Dido and Aeneas" on the Cutler Majestic stage, the one thatboasted Mark Morris's musically pertinent choreography and his fabulous dancing in the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson supplying Dido's voice from the pit. Water imagery dominated Morris's stage picture too: it was fashioned from blue cloth and paint, but the emotions were real. This ''Dido" offered the opposite.