There’s an end-of-term feel at ENO as its season draws to a close, with the Mark Morris Dance Group presenting the Anglo-American double bill reviewed here, and their version of the Handel oratorio, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato on alternate nights. Virgil Thompson – who died in 1989 – was one of the influences behind the music of Aaron Copeland, and his opera Four Saints in Three Acts couldn’t be anything but American, despite its theoretical setting in Spain.
With an impenetrable but delightful libretto by Gertrude Stein, the work is about – in Thompson’s own words – ‘the religious life, peace between the sexes, community of faith and the production of miracles’ and takes the form of a series of episodes in the lives of St Teresa of Avila and St Ignatius Loyola. First performed in 1934, with choreography by Frederick Ashton and John Houseman, this is the first fully staged production in the UK, although the Almeida housed a semi-staged production in 1983.
It has been worth the wait. Simple, colourful sets and exuberant, unfussy dancing combined well with the delightful invention and eccentricity of the music – varying between grand opera, fairground organ effects and religious chant.
The singing from the side boxes was exemplary, particularly both St Teresas, Mary Plazas and Ethna Robinson (don’t even bother to ask why there were two) and Gavin Carr as St Ignatius. The conductor, Andrea Quinn, was totally in control of the extraordinary piece throughout – a joyous event even if we hadn’t the faintest idea what was happening most of the time.
Dido & Aeneas was perhaps a less happy marriage of music and dance. Purcell’s short opera is always problematic to stage, but the music is so glorious that any attempt is welcome. Mark Morris himself plays the role of the tragic Dido, Queen of Carthage, who is loved and left by Aeneas on his way to found Rome. Now Mark Morris is no sylph, and there was an unfortunate element of parody in his choreography – Dido as drag queen simply doesn’t work for me.
Aeneas was nobly danced by Guillermo Resto in dreadlocks and the rest of the cast were effective, especially Ruth Davidson as Belinda, Dido’s sister and confidante. Sarah Connelly sang Dido exquisitely, with Gavin Carr again substituting for Riccardo Simonetti as Aeneas to good effect.
When we came to the closing moments of the opera, with the haunting lament from Dido before she kills herself – Remember Me – I simply had to shut my eyes. Perhaps if Mark Morris had at least covered up those beefy biceps…