Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Dido and Aeneas/Jephte: English Touring Opera @ Hackney Empire, London

14 October 2006

In the final instalment of their Baroque Festival Tour, English Touring Opera present the most famous of early English operas with a relatively obscure choral work by Giacomo Carissimi. Most of the cast of last week’s Orfeo return with the addition of a counter-tenor. Again, there is fine ensemble singing, as well as some impressive individual performances.

The old testament fable Jephte tells of the plight of the King of Israel who makes a pact with God that, in return for victory over his enemies, he will make a burnt offering of the first person to greet him on his return home. This happens to be his own daughter, making for an implicitly dramatic situation.

Last year, English National Opera gave Handel’s Jephta as another of their staged oratorios. Now the much smaller ETO present the same story in a version by the earlier composer Carissimi, who died in 1674, a decade or so before Handel’s birth. Just as the Italian’s oratorio is a diminutive version of Handel’s, both in length and quality, so ETO’s production is inevitably on a much more modest scale than the ENO’s. It’s none the worse for that.

The staging is very simple and effective, with taut direction by Bernadette Iglich. Rather than impose concepts on the work, she concentrates on the groupings of the performers and the pictures she paints expressively and powerfully convey the key elements of the non-narrative text.

Jane Harrington sings the daughter’s lament beautifully and the whole ensemble is very focused and committed, rendering this a delightful 25 minute curtain-raiser.

The same forces are not quite as effective in the more demanding material of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Directed this time by Helen Eastman, they don’t quite rise to the challenges of the strange mix of styles that make up what is supposedly the first English opera.

Dido’s court as a middle-class picnic is not quite dramatically satisfying, although admittedly Purcell’s version of Virgil’s classic is far more English than Italian. The witches are not as grotesque as the music suggests and the rollicking sailors’ shanty is a little too refined and characterless.

Eastman says in the programme notes that she’s aiming for a celebration of dance, theatre and music. Unfortunately, the dance element lets this intention down, with a lack of exuberance in the lacklustre dance sequences. For a true celebration, I’d like to have seen something in the spirit, if not the steps, of the dances that characterised the ending of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe during Mark Rylance’s reign.

The best is left until last, however, with the final chorus following Dido’s lament and death sensitively sung by the ensemble and ending the evening on a quite moving note.

Joana Thomé is Dido with David Stout as Dido/Jephte. The ensemble for both works is Susan Atherton, Sean Clayton, Laura Mitchell, Iestyn Morris, Patricia Orr and Martin Robson. Jane Harrington returns as Belinda in Dido.

Matthew Halls conducts a polished performance by the ETO Baroque Orchestra.

ETO’s Baroque Festival will now tour the UK through to December, playing venues as far afield as Exeter, Ulverston and Canterbury. The other operas in the season are Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Cavalli’s Erismena and Handel’s Tolemeo.

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Dido and Aeneas/Jephte: English Touring Opera @ Hackney Empire, London
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