With battlements of armour, banks of heraldry and Charles I commanding from on high, Middle Temple Hall is as history-steeped a setting as one could expect for England’s earliest opera.
Here Shakespeare performed Twelfth Night before Queen Elizabeth and Purcell himself was no stranger.
The acoustics are excellent but for an audience used to modern theatre conditions, the staging limitations are soon apparent.
From the chorus’s swishingly slow procession preceding the overture, it’s clear we’re in for an evening of impassivity rather than passion. Hooping the tiny orchestra violins, viola, bass violin, theorbo, guitar, organ and harpsichord is a narrow rectangular walkway, compounding the two-dimensionality of an already highly stylised and ceremonial production.
The masquesque nature of Purcell’s work can make engagement with the plight of Dido, Queen of Carthage and her Roman lover Aeneas difficult at the best of times and director David Edwards distances us further through the use of metallic mannequins and kabuki-style movement.
With a star cast fruity-toned Louise Winter as Dido, Andrew Rupp’s stiff and sturdy Aeneas, sweet-voiced Elin Manahan Thomas as Belinda and a secure and airy Sorceress from counter-tenor Robin Blaze plus leisurely but focused playing, led by James Vivian from the keyboard, high musical standards are ensured.
Dramatically it misses the mark at times. Backed by an earnest chorus doing rowing motions, Simon Watts’ public school sailor cruises well clear of funny voices or any sense of comedy and Blaze’s Sorceress suffers from under-characterisation too.
He’s not helped by having to manipulate a gigantic Chinese Dragon-like banner, while his minions float around shadowing this raggedy apparition with two wriggly snakey creations resembling sperm-on-a-stick (what is it with Purcell and puppets?) .
The glorious score never fails though and with the focus on musical delivery rather than theatrical revelation, Purcell’s flow of gorgeous melody does its work.
There are two further performances of Dido and Aeneas and the 2008 Temple Festival continues with Penelope Keith as Queen Elizabeth I in The Regina Monologues on 5 June. Details of all events in the festival at www.templemusic.org