As two of the most famous couplings in the antique canon, Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea have inspired all manner of artistic responses since they debuted in the texts of Virgil and Ovid. A new and ambitious project at Covent Garden, however, attempts to present these star-crossed lovers in an entirely fresh light.
In this year of Baroque celebrations, the two resident companies, The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, are collaborating on a double-bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Handel’s Acis and Galatea. The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, directs both productions (his Dido premiered at La Scala in 2006, his Acis is a brand new work) while Christopher Hogwood conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and two distinguished casts of singers. It will be a landmark event for a number of reasons.
Initial ideas for the project coincided with McGregor’s La Scala production and his appointment at Covent Garden, and evolved alongside wider plans for the Baroque year. Once settled on Dido and Aeneas the challenge was to find a suitable companion piece, as Elaine Padmore, Director of The Royal Opera, explains: “When this Dido was done at La Scala it had been extended with some additional music by Purcell, and a danced prelude, to about 70 minutes. So I thought if we cut that and just did the Dido piece we could do a short Handel piece alongside it, and we decided that Acis and Galatea would make a lovely English double-bill.”
Not only were these pieces written for English audiences, and set to English libretti, but in terms of narrative too, they compliment each other well: both are based on Ancient Greek literature and yet both address the timeless and universal themes of love and loss. Above all, perhaps, the masque traditions of these two short operas invite the element of dance. Individual dancers from The Royal Ballet are occasionally used in one-off Royal Opera productions, and likewise ballets are sometimes set to operatic or symphonic works, but it is extremely rare that both companies are given mutual control, as they are here.
As Padmore explains, this is mainly for practical reasons instead of draining Royal Ballet resources, The Royal Opera generally hires from a pool of freelance dancers and because opportunities for genuine collaboration, as opposed to simply shoehorning one art-form into the another, are difficult to orchestrate: “Because of Wayne’s position we know that it’s truly being shared between the two companies, it’s not just that The Royal Ballet is supplying a few dancers for a bit of dance that happens to be in an opera, it’s properly choreographed.”
It’s tempting, however, to view this project as a mark of how much the directorial approach to opera has changed over the last thirty years. Gone are the days of stand-and-sing sopranos, and new generations of singers are now required to be lithe and athletic, capable of expressive movement, while at the same time maintaining their vocal agility. Danielle de Niese, the twenty-nine year-old American soprano who sings Galatea in this production, is one such artist: as a teenager she took dance training alongside her vocal studies, and it has proved to be a wise investment.
“I think there is a trend towards more dynamic staging in opera as we embrace new media and the form becomes much more visual,” de Niese explains. “I think this evolution was needed for the art-form to flourish but that’s not to say that there’s no value in still singing, because I think there’s tremendous value in that, and I think you can only appreciate movement by having stillness as well.”
The structures and syncopations of Baroque opera and indeed Baroque music more generally (there’s a section near the close of Rameau’s keyboard Suite in A minor that simply screams for drum and bass backing) seem especially sympathetic to modern choreography. De Niese has performed in two productions that are particularly noted for their dance elements: David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare, which drew on Bollywood styles, and Andrei Serban’s Les Indes Galantes, which culminated in cast members William Christie included chicken-dancing around the stage in an exuberant encore of “Les sauvages”.
In Acis and Galatea, a modern ballet style is used as a direct response to themes within the piece, as de Niese explains. “There’s this underlying notion that Galatea is always in motion, so her thoughts are always in motion, and on a physical level too.” Throughout the piece the singing characters are mirrored by dancing alter egos, but as it draws to its conclusion de Niese comes together with Edward Watson, one of The Royal Ballet’s most celebrated principals, who is the dancing Acis. “At the end of the opera, after Acis dies, Galatea is left alone while the chorus sing “Galatea dry thy tears”, and then I merge with Ed Watson and we engage in a whole choreographed piece. It’s a really nice idea, that the spirits of both the movement and the vocal line merge into one.”
It is also significant that Covent Garden are presenting early opera, since their repertoire generally settles around the late Romantic period. In 1995 they staged an ambitious production of Purcell’s King Arthur, or The British Worthy, in recent years Handel operas have featured and last September they showcased David Alden’s production of Cavalli’s La Calisto. The company seems to finally be bowing to demand for Baroque opera so is Dido/Acis just a dutiful nod to the birthday boys or a clear statement of intent to explore more early opera? “Well, we do have another one lined up to open the 2010-2011 season,” Padmore says, “I’m not going to tell you the title, but it’s a very rare baroque opera so yes, we are trying to expand the repertoire at both ends.”
One of the obvious benefits of this project, is its wide appeal, and Padmore is enthusiastic about welcoming new audiences into the opera house. “This is Baroque opera, shared by The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, so there should be a lot of new people coming, a mixed audience, a different kind of audience, hopefully a big audience!” No doubt the nature of future programmes will rest on its success.
This double-bill of Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea opens at Covent Garden on Tuesday 31 March for six performances only with further performances on 3, 8, 11, 15 & 18 April. Box Office: 020 7304 4000.