Wallen: Dido’s Ghost at Blackheath Halls | Live Review

Colin Clarke
Friday, July 5, 2024

Trinity Laban Opera presents Errollyn Wallen’s meditation on memory


Memories are a crucial part of Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace’s opera Dido’s Ghost: as they are of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (think – with apologies for HIP-adherents – how Kirsten Flagstad’s astonishing delivery of 'Remember me' from the Lament on her famous 1952 recording places this moment as the spine-tingling climax of the work). Wallen plays with he ac of remembering in her piece, Dido’s Ghost, an exploration of what might have happened to Aeneas after Dido’s death, and of how the past can haunt us.

Although ostensibly a sequel to the Purcell, Wallen’s music also enwraps the original; the players are asked therefore to move between Baroque and contemporary, sometimes in the blink of an eye. At other times the two morph, maybe bleed, into one another. The plot centres on Aeneas who, after abandoning Dido to her death, has arrived in Italy and is now married to Lavinia. But he encounters a woman, washed up by the sea. The woman looks like Dido; but is in fact Dido’s sister, Anna. Memories and guilt consume Aeneas; in the second act of Wallen’s opera, Anna is taken to a masque – and it is Purcell’s Dido that is performed. This is not, incidentally, the first time Wallen has reimagined the past: try her high-octane Concero grosso, which references Corelli.

Dido's Ghost at Trinity Laban Opera | Photo credit: Sienna Lorraine Gray

So, just as Wallen looks back, Aeneas himself confronts his back-story. In the process of composing her work, Wallen  also redresses Purcell’s dramatic balance: important though Aeneas is to the plot, he does not actually sing much in Dido. It is the reverse here, and he even goes on to sing the Lanent himself. The core instrumentation of the Purcell is itself a memory, brought nearer to us by the addition of an electric guitar capable of a grungy ground, and a large array of percussion.

The idea of an uncentred, liminal musical space, neither fully Purcell nor fully Wallen, is a vital aspect, perhaps encapsulated by Anna’s question: ‘Am I dead, am I alive ...’; her dream-like state both encapsulates and enables infinite possibility. Anna’s music itself tends towards the now, but even here there is an undercurrent, or rather, shadow, of, Purcell: Henry’s ghost, if you will.

Scarlett Jones and Madeleine McConnell-Smith in Dido's Ghost at Trinity Laban Opera | Photo credit: Sienna Lorraine Gray

Stace’s expertly-wrought libretto draws both on Ovid and Virgil.  There is a real freshness to both the work and to this performance (it is of course yet new: Dido’s Ghost was first performed at the Barbican in Summer 2021, and later taken to San Francisco, in November of that year). The present staging, by award-wining Frederic Wake-Walker, uses the space brilliantly (with very mobile chorus), using a silver curtain, initially bare stage, and minimal props.  A stage within a stage – meta-theatre is hardly new (the Così at Covent Garden at the time of writing uses it, too), but here it works superbly and is, of course, entirely apt..

Baritone Robin Hughes is a superb Aeneas, his voice absolutely beautiful, an expressive instrument wielded for maximal expression, his stage presence undeniable. Aeneas has a son, Ascanius, who is with him when the body is discovered: Andrew Woodmansey, who specialises in contemporary music, takes the part well. Scarlett Jones sings Anna/Dido, still an undergraduate (she will travel to the Juilliard under The Kovner Fellowship). Jones is fresh of voice, and brimming with  potential.

Madeleine McConnell-Smith in Dido's Ghost at Trinity Laban Opera | Photo credit: Sienna Lorraine Gray

As Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife, mezzo Imogen Woodhead’s voice complements Jones’, cutting, laudably accurate, and confident, while soprano Madeleine McConnell-Smith as Belinda excelled. Johannes Gerges as a male (bass) sorceress worked dramatically, but was less comfortable vocally.

Conductor Jonahan Tilbrook led the evening well, but there was a feeling for much of the evening that he strings needed more confidence; although certainly, neither chorus nor the small troupe of five excellent dancers were lacking in that area.

Wallen’s opera is fascinating, and deserves every success. The the performance on July 6 at 230pm has the same cast and conductor; for July 5 and Saturday 6 (7.30pm), there is a second cast, and Vicente Chavarria conducts.

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