Good performances in enigmatic and thought-provoking production of Dido and Aeneas

10/09/2011

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Purcell: Dido and Aeneas. Joint opera production between Operamus and Birmingham Conservatoire with Annette Thompson (Director) and Daniele Rosina (Conductor), Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, 4. 9. 2011 (GR).

The Concert Diary of Birmingham Conservatoire publishes at the beginning of each academic term promises (and in my experience delivers) a wealth of varied and interesting musical experiences. The Sept-Dec 2011 issue is no exception and the season got off to a cracking start with two performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas on 4th September, each with a different cast.  I attended the first performance at 2 pm. Operamus had produced Handel’s Semele following an intensive 4-day workshop three years ago (see review) and with excellent results. The basic ingredients were the same: aspiring students from the Conservatoire, a mixed orchestral group here under the baton of Daniele Rosina, a chorus drawn from the local community again under the direction of Annette Thompson. Could they repeat their success?

Thompson’s essential idea was to cast the sorceress as Dido’s sister Anna who symbolised her alter ego. Whether this has been done before or not, it is certainly plausible to represent the inner turmoil of the Queen of Carthage in this way. In the opera’s libretto of Nahum Tate she struggles as her fate becomes torn between love and duty. Although the finished product was thought-provoking, I found it enigmatic and rather unconvincing. Surely if Dido loved Aeneas with a passion to die for, then there needed to be some evidence to support it; there was very little. Certain incidents in the opening Palace Scene demonstrated that the relationship between Dido and Aeneas was distinctly cool. For instance when Cupid appeared complete with bow, his arrow tip sported a suction pad. Was he meant to be firing blanks? This God of desire was supposed to win the day and precipitate a ‘Triumphing Dance’. But what did Aeneas do? He broke off his half-clinch with Dido to turn his attention upon sister Anna! Why? Did Dido hope to get the best of both worlds, retain full sovereignty and fortify her Carthage with the might of Troy by wishing Aeneas upon her sister? Or was she simply mixed up? Tate has it that the union of Dido and Aeneas is good for both individual and state. The opening scene was set with a spoken excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid, begun in Greek before the translation took over. In itself this was not a bad idea, but surely it should have stopped there. Why interrupt the dramatic climax of the final scene with a second reading?

I thought Francesca Costigan as Dido got off to a nervous start in the first scene, but she came into her own in the final one. Her Your Council all is urg’d in vain was for me the most moving moment of the afternoon. Her rich mezzo conveyed her torment from both ‘Earth and Heaven’ so much more than any acted suggestions of paranoia. With only 3½ days and two casts to prepare, it was not surprising that the I’ll stay, I’ll stay/Away, Away exchange of the lovers  needed more rehearsal time. But When I am laid in Earth  from the winner of this year’s Ashleyan Prize (see review) was a performance to remember. As Costigan began to get breathless and lose consciousness her last gasps were finally extinguished by Anna’s hug. Tate does not tell us how Dido dies, thus allowing scope for director interpretation. I thought Thompson’s choice of how the Queen quit the mortal coil was inspired. Mikael Onelius was a powerful Aeneas, looking and sounding like a hero from Troy in search of a homeland; his Jove’s commands shall be obey’d proved he was not the only protagonist at odds with themselves.

Another point I found strange was that while Dido and Anna received the attention of their court-maidens, the third sister Belinda seemed to have lost her royal status. Nevertheless Anna Shakleton as Belinda portrayed a bubbly personality, attempting to put a smile on the face of Dido; her Pursue thy conquest love gave Aeneas every encouragement, but Dido remained aloof, even her eyes failing to Confess the Flame. At the heart of the tragedy Daniella Varadi as the Sorceress/Anna combined well with the members of her coven. The duet Ruin’d ere the set of Sun (Heather Heighway and Victoria Aindow I believe) delighted the students in the auditorium. Another excellent cameo role came from the trio of Rachel Farr, Sarah Richards and Rome Loukes. As ever the supporting cast from the Conservatoire provided busy and harmonising accompaniment; their dancing was understandably modest, but they displayed the disposition of the Carthaginians as a cheerful bunch. However the additional volume of the Operamus seniors at times seemed altogether too much for the general tone of this production. After all this was Purcell’s finest opera, not an oratorio! The nine-piece orchestra under conductor Daniele Rosina could not be faulted with some fine continuo from the harpsichord of Sara Wilander. Despite any adverse comments, all those involved are to be congratulated on a highly enjoyable Sunday afternoon, well received by an enthusiastic audience in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall.

Geoff Read

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