Modena’s refreshing Dido and Aeneas is a real rethinking of the music and the drama from

ItalyItaly Purcell, Dido and Aeneas: Soloists, Coro Lirico di Modena I Madrigalisti Estensi, Ensemble Alraune / Mario Sollazzo (conductor). Live streaming from Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti, Modena, on YouTube (and Opera on Video), 8.11.2020. (CC)

Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti’s Dido and Aeneas

Director – Stefano Monti
Assistant Director – Monique Arnaud
Set assistant – Lamberto Azzariti

Dido – Michaela Antenucci
Aeneas – Mauro Borgioni
Belinda – Ilaria Vanacore
Second Woman – Alice Molinari
Sorceress – Benedetta Mazzuccato
First Witch / Spirit – Maria Bagalà
Second Witch – Eleonora Filipponi
First Sailor – Giovanni Maria Palmia

This is a straight-to-streaming production; so the lack of audience enabled director Stefano Monti to further utlilise the front stalls of the theatre. Monti himself said that ‘now is not the time for sumptuous staging’; it needs to adapt to a whole host of new regulations (the ‘New Normal’ as some would have it); and if there is one thing artists are good at, it is adapting. This what Monti calls a ‘rc-theatricalising’ of the ‘scenic space’. There is also the most remarkable close: the cast and musicians take bows in the traditional manner in spooky silence.

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At the start, the filming of preparations – tuning, make-up beings applied – cede to the sounds of the sea, which is then juxtaposed onto the stalls area of the theatre. Silence greets the close of the opera; we hear footsteps; bows are taken silently, to an empty theatre, a pantomime of our times written blazingly loudly in its own rapt silence. It is infinitely touching: Dido waves to the ‘audience’ as she leaves, the cast and chorus, each following her with the same arm raised as they make a full circle of the stage; our final view is of an empty theatre before the titles roll.

Those who know the Purcell will be surprised by the percussion in the opening, a relentless, rhythmic drumbeat that cedes when the music softens and returns when the opening itself returns. To this, Dido, dressed in a sparkly cage for a dress, the ribbing of a dress with the covering material removed, enters. When the furious allegro arrives (more a Handelian fury here), the stage erupts with incident, a troupe of dancers and the Queen’s two female attendants (again in those caged dresses). The strong colours and angular nature of the set put me in mind of the more abstract lightings for the Robert Wilson and Philip Glass Einstein on the Beach (Barbican, May 2012). This is a place where emotions are jagged and raw: not only in the angles of the set but in the red-raw colours.

Ilaria Vanacore is a strong Belinda initially (hers is the first voice we hear, in ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’), although her Italian accented English does become more obvious as the piece continues (she gets a lot of physical exercise while singing ‘Persue thy conquest, Love’, and does well to sustain the line). Michaela Antenucci’s Dido, rightly, is presented as initially fragile in her ‘Ah, Belinda, I am press’d with torment’. Here, the stage is suffused with red – passion, and (internalised) rage. Antenucci’s awareness of dramatic intent is keen: ‘I languish till my grief is known’ shows pronounced timbral deepening; increasing this sense of ongoing internal pain is Antenucci’s tasteful ornamentation of line. Later, in the final act, we hear just how operatic she can be, just prior to and during her scene with Aeneas. Here she seems too much at the other end of the spectrum – more Bellini than Purcell. Yet her sense of defeat at ‘Death is now a welcome guest’ is palpable, the blanched tone for the Lament perfectly calibrated for the occasion. She collapses just prior to the chorus ‘With drooping wings’; but listen to the descending lines the conductor Mauro Sollazzo finds in the orchestra, like slowly falling daggers.

Mauro Borgioni, as Aeneas, is commanding vocally and dramatically, with a sweet-toned upper register. No monster on his spear, but his commanding delivery almost makes us believe there is. Some Italianised vowels apart, this is a commanding assumption of the role.

A fascinating use of lighting enables the Witches to have what looks like Star Wars lightsabres as the orchestra sets the scene for the Sorceress’s entrance. Benedetta Mazzuccato as the Sorceress has great dramatic presence, her stylised gestures working well. Those drums of fate pervade ‘The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate’; the two witches are perfectly cast, their voices perfectly in accord.

Maria Bagalà doubles First Witch and Spirit; in this latter guise (‘Stay, Prince, and hear great Jove’s command’) she convinces that she is a name to watch.

Suspended ships indicate sailors are around for Act III, and indeed we get a lusty Sailors’ Chorus; the Sorceress and her two witches are terrific (I am not sure the fermatas on ‘Elisa’s ruin’d’ are warranted, though; and not the only interventionist gesture from Mario Sollazzo).

Rose petals fall at the end, in response to the text (‘to scatter roses at her tomb’). The attacks in the final orchestra rendition of the chorus link straight back to the work’s opening, cleverly (which is why, presumably, the chorus sings their ‘nevers’ with such attack).

Offstage elements are beautifully managed (the echo chorus ‘In our deep vaulted cell’). The choruses excel, and orchestrally there is much to admire, too. Whoever the harpsichordist is has a rip-roaring time, glissandos aplenty with the chorus ‘When Monarchs Unite’. The zingy percussion (maracas?) to Belinda and the Second Woman’s duet ‘Fear no danger, to endure’ certainly adds a festive, almost ceremonial, feel to proceedings. The orchestra is on stage, adding immediacy.

The performance is certainly not bound by any inherited performance tradition: the chorus ‘Cupid only throws the dart’ is positively funereal; ‘But ere we this perform,’ too, is rethought, the slower tempo adding weight before an accelerando takes us into appropriately stormy waters.

There is the odd quibble: ‘Harm’s our delight’ chorus could have started more together. while the balance in ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ favours the continuo cello, meaning we cannot really hear the tune Belinda will sing when it is played on the harpsichord. Belinda is portrayed as a nocturnal creature here, somewhat sinister; tremendous decorations from Ilaria Vanacore, totally unfettered as the air goes on.

Never have I heard such a frenzied ‘Oft she visits this lone fountain’ (the Second Woman, Alice Molinari, does well to keep up with the gritty dotted rhythms below her while a shadow show of orgiastic ladies underlines the threat). It is symptomatic of what makes this Dido so refreshing:  a real rethinking of the music and the drama. I look forward to the next opera in this series, Handel’s Aci, Galateo e Poliferno, HWV 72, from the Teatro Municipale in Piacenza, streamed free on Sunday, November 15 at 1530 CET/ 1430 GMT and, again, available via YouTube and OperaStreaming.

Colin Clarke

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