Dido and Aeneas in Madrid Puts the Emphasis on Ballet over Opera

SpainSpain Purcell, Dido and Aeneas: Vocalconsort Berlin, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Christopher Moulds (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 31.3.2019. (JMI)

Dido and Aeneas © J. del Real

Director – Sasha Waltz
Sets – Sasha Waltz and Thomas Schenk
Costumes – Christine Birkle
Lighting – Thilo Reuther

Dido – Marie-Claude Chappuis
Aeneas – Nikolay Borchev
Belinda – Aphrodite Patoulidou
Sorceress – Yannis François
Second Woman – Luciana Mancini
First Witch/Sailor – Ziad Nehme
Second Witch/Spirit – Michael Smallwood
Dancers – Sasha Waltz & Guests

I was surprised to see that this Henry Purcell opera at the Teatro Real was going to be the only work of the day and not part of a double bill. In my experience, it is generally staged along with another work – the duration of Dido and Aeneas is barely one hour. The most recent times I have seen it, the Purcell has been accompanied by Britten’s Phaedra (Bordeaux), Charpentier’s Acteon (Valladolid) and even Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók (Frankfurt). I did wonder what was going to be done with a shorter opera like this one. Upon entering the Teatro Real, one discovered that the duration of the opera was to be one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission. Was there to be some musical addition?

The production staged at the Teatro Real is by the choreographer Sasha Waltz and, indeed, this performance was a ballet with voices. That is to say, it’s the opposite of what usually happens with the presence of ballet in operas, where it can be a complement to the opera or, in some cases, is especially important, as in some French opera. Here the concept is turned upside down, and the ballet becomes the protagonist: the voices are just the complement.

During the prologue, the stage holds a large tank of water in which a few artists-swimmers perform their pirouettes. From then on, there is a single set for the entire opera consisting of an empty stage with a painted curtain at the rear. Obviously, the dancers need plenty of space. The costumes are modern and appropriate for dance movements.

It really is a ballet accompanied by singers, and the opera is put at the service of the dance and not of the plot. All the artists dance on stage, some more and others less, and the most interesting in this respect was the performance of the Vocalconsort Berlin.

Texts are added that have nothing to do with the opera, and there is some dancing without music. It does help lengthen the opera, which seems to have been considered sufficient to justify its presence as the only title of the evening.

The musical direction has been entrusted to British conductor Christopher Moulds, who offered a remarkable performance, drawing an outstanding sound from Die Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin as well as from the excellent Vocalconsort Berlin.

Mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis as Queen Dido was very good in the part, although she was not particularly moving in her final great moment of ‘Remember Me’.

Baritone Nikolay Borchev has a voice that is well-suited to the role of Aeneas.

Soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou as Belinda made a strong impression, while Yannis François as the Sorceress was a bit more modest. Luciana Mancini gave a correct interpretation of the Second Woman, and Ziad Nehme and Michael Smallwood covered the characters of Witches, Sailor and Spirit nicely.

The vocalists were all doubled by dancers and, in some cases, by two of them.

José M. Irurzun

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