Sarah Connolly makes a thrilling Royal Opera debut as a dignified and superbly sung Queen of Carthage. Otherwise, this eagerly-anticipated coming together of The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet is more hit and miss.
Well, first things first. British mezzo-soprano Connolly finally made her belated Royal Opera debut in Wayne McGregor’s staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and she triumphed. Despite a pre-performance announcement that she was only just recovering from a throat infection, there was little evidence in her regal assumption of the title role that vocally she’d been unwell. Maybe there was a slight hesitancy at the start, but by the opera’s conclusion her luscious, dark-hued mezzo voice was in full flow and she delivered an unbearably poignant account of Dido’s famous Lament.
This was an auspicious debut and let’s just hope she’s asked back often. She was not the only singer appearing for the first time with the Royal Opera, indeed there was a plethora of house debuts from a series of rising British stars, which is a good indication of the Royal Opera’s belief in home-grown talent.
Lucy Crowe fulfilled the promise she’s been showing over recent years with a brilliantly-voiced Belinda, whilst Iestyn Davies’ disembodied pronouncements as the Spirit from high up in the auditorium were suitably ethereal. The only weak link in the cast was American baritone Lucas Meacham’s nondescript Aeneas. True, Purcell doesn’t give him much material to work with, but he seemed an unnecessary import especially when we have plenty of fine British baritones who would have fitted the bill perfectly.
The production was minimal but I loved the classical simplicity of Wayne McGregor’s direction and Hildegard Bechtler’s simple designs. Dance, lighting and singing were all at one with the piece and Christopher Hogwood and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided wonderful accompaniment. In short I thought it was a triumph.
Acis and Galatea however was a whole different kettle of fish, indeed I felt that on going to the bathroom in the interval I’d entered some kind of operatic tardis that had beamed me back to the’50s. The curtain rose on a scene that, with its painted backcloth, stuffed animals and incongruous papier-mâché little grotto, was redolent of something from a bygone age.
As the work is about half an hour of plot, padded out with ninety minutes of music it cries out for a strong directorial hand, and despite McGregor’s best efforts the end result was a bit of a hotchpotch. Each character had a dancing double, but as dance is not my bag I can’t really comment how well they acquitted themselves, but to be honest I didn’t think the dance added anything to the proceedings. Danielle de Niese, unflatteringly be-wigged and costumed, failed to live up to expectations as Galatea. She has a nice enough voice, but nothing special and her diction left a lot to be desired (yes despite there being surtitles it matters). Charles Workman fared better as Acis and Paul Agnew made his mark as Damon. A piece like this needs an experienced opera director’s hand, a David Alden for example, but despite his superb dance credentials, Wayne McGregor is not that.