Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Dido and Aeneas @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

13 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment launch their ‘Revolution 2007-2008’ season with an interpretation of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas that is intertwined with extracts from Christopher Marlowe’s earlier play Dido, Queen of Carthage and dramatised with marionettes. Tim Carroll’s staging certainly feels novel though not as revolutionary as Peter Sellars’ puppet Ring Cycle.

What Carroll attempts is in fact closer to the court entertainment of Purcell’s day, where musical dramas evolved from the English theatre tradition. The tragic love-story of Dido and Aeneas, as told in Virgil’s Aeneid, is necessarily simplified and the small discrepancies between the two narratives ignored, but the result is anything but banal. The production has a workshop-like feel to it, with performers in black clothes moving like stagehands beneath the dimly lit orchestra. Sets are kept to a minimum an archway here, a tree there and each child-size marionette is trailed by a singer and a speaker, who choreograph every movement, from the raising of a cup to the intricate logistics of a kiss.

Sections of Marlowe’s play work as spoken recitative, sometimes accompanied with gentle strings or snippets of chaconne. Yolanda Vasquez and Jonathan Oliver, as Dido and Aeneas respectively, project their lines with feeling but the drama deflates in these sections and one can’t help thinking that Marlowe’s verse needs more than a puppet to bring it to life. The innocence and fragility of the marionettes, however, make for scenes of unexpected poignancy, not least in the hymnic conclusion, where Dido is slowly disrobed by her maidservants before silently committing suicide.

Act Two introduces visual elements that are interesting but not entirely consistent. The Sorceress is represented as a grotesque sea-monster writhing furiously in a water tank, whilst her accomplices a range of grizzly body parts floating in formaldehyde are arranged like Damien Hirst installations behind the orchestra. Alexandra Gibson is superb as the voice of the Sorceress and her two witches (Carys Lane and Rebecca Outram) are well-sung but perhaps a bit too genteel.

It is the main protagonists, however, that excel. Sarah Connolly’s rich mezzo has a melancholic quality that seems suited to the role of ill-fated Dido and she delivers each note with perfect emotion and control. Giles Underwood’s contribution as Aeneas is sporadic but his voice is warm and well-defined, and Elin Manahan Thomas sings prettily as Belinda.

Stephen Devine directs from the harpsichord with verve, though the lusty ‘Harms our Delight’ chorus is rather hurried, and the OAE and OAE choir give an inspiring performance, promising much for the remainder of this season. The fragmentary nature of Purcell’s score and the mystery surrounding Marlowe’s play provide fertile ground for experimentation, and though this may add up to less than a sum of its parts, it is fascinating project nonetheless.

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