The short running time of Dido and Aeneas usually sees companies pair it with another one-act opera. In the case of English Touring Opera, however, they have supplemented it with two pieces by Italian composers from Purcell’s or earlier times. In addition to enabling us to hear some exquisite music, some of which is rarely performed, this approach ensures a sense of continuity across the evening as the same eight singers are employed in all three works. As individuals they are undoubtedly strong, but the element that makes the evening really special is the strength of them of as an ensemble, as all of the harmonies are rendered with exquisite beauty.
Dido and Aeneas, directed by Seb Harcombe, sees Adam Wiltshire’s single set look like a ruined Jacobean house from just before Purcell’s own time, with only a few sloping walls surviving. A moon shines behind, while the different spaces required by the drama are delineated through Rory Beaton’s lighting alterations, and either opening or closing the shutters on the one wall that bears windows. In this way, the Sorceress can conjure up a storm from within the space, as she describes her plans for the destruction of Aeneas on the ocean, by taking a model ship that stands above the ruined fireplace and tossing it around.
The main point of using this single, shadowed area, however, is to represent Dido’s state of mind and thus suggest that ‘it is the intensity of Dido’s own fatalistic thoughts and fears about her forthcoming betrothal and her anxiety about surviving potential heartbreak that bring upon her the events that are to come’. Sky Ingram sings Dido extremely effectively, but all of the other seven performers play multiple parts including Nicholas Mogg who is an excellent Aeneas. This has many advantages, not least the fact that Mogg can be on stage at the end witnessing Dido’s death. Strictly he is not assuming the role of Aeneas at this moment, but it enables us to picture that character’s reaction to the tragedy.
The death scene is, in fact, rendered extremely effectively as Ingram’s sensitive performance of ‘When I am laid in Earth’ also includes the right level of sobs and gasps to really move us, without ever tipping over into histrionics. After she has died she actually rises and gazes on the chorus as she exits the stage to emphasise Harcombe’s vision for the production that Dido is reliving her painful memories, with the various events being remembered as snapshots in her mind.
The two shorter pieces in the first half are by Giacomo Carissimi and Gesualdo. The former, although rather out of fashion today, was highly acclaimed in his lifetime (1605-74) with Samuel Pepys singing the composer’s praises in his diaries. His Jonas tells the biblical story of Jonah and in this performance, directed by Bernadette Iglich, there are no ships, whales or large props as the scenario is played out by the movement and positioning of the eight performers. Against a dark, unadorned background they provide the very infrastructure themselves, thus creating a suitably all-embracing atmosphere for what is ‘an introspective and personal journey of faith of a man named Jonas’. Jorge Navarro-Colorado stands out, in particular, in the title role while Jonathan Peter Kenny, as he does for the rest of the evening, conducts superbly.
Part of the interest in presenting I Will Not Speak derived from the notion that today many people do not seem to know much about Gesualdo beyond a few ‘scandalous’ facts such as that he murdered his first wife and her lover. Nonetheless, his set of Tenebrae responses are so beautiful (Kenny describes them as ‘possibly his greatest achievement’) that they require no further justification for being performed. Written for the final three days of Holy Week, the ceremony of Tenebrae sees the gradual extinguishing of fifteen candles as a series of Psalms are sung.
As the music is interspersed with spoken writings and poetry (from John Donne and George Herbert), in this performance we also hear about ‘Gesualdo’s crime’. Through this, we learn that condemnation for his murders did not derive directly from what he did because in that society killing an adulterous wife was not particularly frowned upon. Rather it came from the fact that he enlisted the help of people of a lower social status to carry it out. We are also given the opportunity to appreciate the complexity of the wider situation as those murders were only part of a greater number that occurred within his family.
What really makes the performance special, however, is the absolute beauty of the music, and the skill and sensitivity in which the harmonies are rendered by this cast so that the final ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ – fifth motet response in Matins service for Good Friday is particularly moving. At the performance at the Hackney Empire, English Touring Opera ended the evening by paying respects to Judith Ackrill who had been on its Board of Directors and sadly died recently. It did this by the evening’s performers singing ‘Plorate filii Israel’ from Carissimi’s Jephte which, given the sheer emotional power of the rendition, proved to be a highly fitting tribute.
English Touring Opera will tour its three current productions, Dido and Aeneas / Jonas / I Will Not Speak, Radamisto and the St Matthew Passion around the country until 28 November 2018. For full details of venues and dates, including a performance of the St Matthew Passion in Temple Church, London on 18 October, visit the English Touring Opera website.