PURCELL Dido & Aeneas
In 1995 the Royal Opera House marked the tercentenary of Purcell’s death by importing Les Arts Florissants’ production of King Arthur. For last year’s 350th birthday celebrations, the ROH mounted Dido and Aeneas, directed by choreographer Wayne McGregor: not nearly as much fun but a respectable attempt at a difficult task.
Difficult because it’s an intimate piece, not suited to the vast acreage of Covent Garden; in fact, thanks to the film director Jonathan Haswell it works better here than in the theatre. Another difficulty is the under-drawn character of Aeneas, who usually comes across with all the vigour of a stuffed owl. Les Troyens it is not.
The plainness of Hildegard Bechtler’s set design – a bare stage, with a few trees for the grove scene and a token boat in Act 3 – is matched by Fotini Dimou’s monochrome costumes. This rightly focuses the attention on the singers – and the dancers, of course. Generally speaking, the latter don’t obtrude, except for the synchronised PT that illustrates “Oft she visits this lone mountain”: the singlets and shorts don’t help. McGregor handles the chorus well: nowhere better than at the end, where his arrangement of the group standing and kneeling by Dido’s body is mesmerisingly beautiful. He gets natural, unexaggerated acting from the principals, too; his rare miscalculations are to have the Spirit utter his command to Aeneas offstage and to spoil the postlude to “When I am laid in earth” with Belinda trying to revive her mistress. Sara Fulgoni admirably refrains from camping up the Sorceress; her attendant witches, conjoined with one arm apiece, are sung and acted with gusto by Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza. I was surprised to learn that Lucas Meachem is American: he doesn’t sound at home in English, making diphthongs out of “stay” and “obey”. Belinda is unaffectedly played by Lucy Crowe, her bright tones and precise articulation all one could desire. Sarah Connolly, whether tormented by love or grief, makes an equally ideal Dido.
Christopher Hogwood conducts with sensitivity, the languorous “Thanks to these lonesome vales” being a high-point, and the musicians of the OAE respond to his direction with a spring in their step. Definitely worth investigating.