Review – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – Royal Opera House

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Wanye Macgregor directing Baroque opera, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment providing the accompaniment? Really, when I read about this production of Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House, I thought someone might have been reading through my mind and picking my dream production. Movement has frequently been a problem with Baroque opera for me (i.e. Partenope), and I thought with Macgregor, not only would this be taken care of, but we would actually have someone with enough imagination and vision to really shake up the the whole Baroque opera “thing.”

I don’t really like opera, and the only opera I do consistently enjoy IS Baroque/early music opera, but it has this horrible tendency to be staged in a manner I find just painful. It’s really all about the artistry of the singing, see, so there are these long bits where people are just standing there … singing. Sometimes this means that, well, basically someone is frozen on stage while they make really pretty noises, and sometimes … and this is worse … the director decides this singing thing, it must be very dull, I need to make sure the audience is entertained, a la the mortifying Orfeo we saw the English Touring Opera perform, and then my ability to enjoy what is coming in my ears is destroyed by my desire to claw my eyes out to get away from the horror that is on the stage in front of me.

So. Totally modern, “with it” guy taking on Baroque Opera? I say, Bring It On! It’s not a case of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (of not trusting the material), it’s an opportunity to take a really unusual ingredient to a master chef and, let’s say, make a mole’ out of ultra-dark chocolate. In addition, to me it promised the opportunity to see some great dance on stage in addition to the whole orchestra/singers shebang, so BIG STOKE!

Except for … well, the fact that on April 15th, I was just coming back from a 14 day vacation. And exhausted. Which is why I am not also reviewing Acis and Galatea. Do forgive me for this! But 90 more minutes of show after a 25 minute intermission – I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked tickets for a weeknight instead of on a weekend. I couldn’t risk being shot all of the next day at work, so I gave my modest side balcony seats to someone in the slips, realizing I was going to be missing out on a lot of great music in favor of, er, keeping my job. Ah well.

The curtain arose on the overture to show a stage with a very modern/postmodern design – a simple stage with a perhaps shoulder height light colored rectangular box on it about two thirds in, and the light-grey, Greek-esque robed Dido (Sarah Connolly) having her maid, Belinda (understudy Simona Mihai, filling in for the evening) fiddle with her dress. The overall feel for the costuming was greys (darker for the rest of the cast) and fairly simple robes … except for the dancers, who wore sleeveless shirts and black short shorts. It had a very unified feel to it, and much fresher than usual, and while the women and townsfolk looked fairly, if anonymously, classical, the men (well, Aeneas and a few of his shipmates) in their rather Japanese wide, split pants did manage to look different. Aeneas, though, wore what looked like a scarab beetle chest piece, which cracked me up. The costuming generally help focus attention on the singers, though, which was good.

I’m actually not very good at talking about singing, and should have taken many more notes to try to prod my memory (three days later) so that I could discuss it better. Sarah seemed good at Baroque singing, full of trills and expressiveness. Her movement on stage wasn’t histrionic, but neither was she stiff. Simona did sound years younger than her mistress, which was good, and benefited from sounding generally fresh and excited to be on stage. While I expect she’ll sound even better as her voice matures, it was a pleasure to watch and listen to her. Aeneas (Lucas Meachem) was fine, but the opera doesn’t focus on him so much and even a few days later I can’t remember how he sounds. I do remember what a laugh I got out of the Siamese twin First and Second Witches (Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza) – it sure added a lot of visual interest to what in a previous viewing of this opera had been a very snoozy scene!

On to the choreography, which was a lot more of why I came to this. In general, the movements of the principles and the chorus on stage was far better than I’ve seen in any Baroque opera since I’ve moved to England (I usually manage two or three a year). They didn’t move just because there was nothing else going on on stage, but mostly to move the story forward; the massing during the scene in the witches’ lair was very good, while the couples promenading and cooing during the “grove” scene (“Thanks to these lovesome vales”) and the snuggling and then leave-taking of “Come away, fellow sailors” really increased the dramatic impact of the music.

However, the effect of the dancers was mixed. In part it was because of their costumes; to suddenly throw these ultra-sexy, bare-legged creatures on stage with people parading around in robes just pulls your focus right off the story and into the present. In the scenes where they were filling in for an unsung musical interlude, they were generally good, even though the dance didn’t feel quite integrated into the “feel” of the piece. In the scene where a dancer took the role of Mercury/”Spirit” (as sung deliciously by Iestyn Davies) and mimed the content/feel of his speech to Aeneas (telling him he must leave Carthage) was perfect; gorgeously lit, the offstage voice adding more to the otherworldly feel of the scene, the dancer himself looking very much like an incarnation of a god. However, during the witches’ scene, “Here Actaeon met his fate,” the dancing made me think of tits on a bull – it just didn’t fit (the costumes and movement were so wrong for the moment) and was a complete distraction. Ah well, perhaps more experience with this kind of work will lead to Macgregor getting the format right.

Overall, though, this evening proved to me that Baroque opera can be just as enjoyable to watch as it is to listen to, and I look forward to seeing such a strong performance in the future.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 15th, 2009. Two more performances are set for Saturday, April 18th and Monday, April 20th. This is the Dido you will want to see this spring!)

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One Response to “Review – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – Royal Opera House”

  1. Review – Tunnel 228 – Punchdrunk at Waterloo « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] for giving away my Royal Opera House balcony seats to some poor folks in the standing side slips two weeks back). The question is, then, how can you get a ticket to go if you want to? My advice to the brash is […]

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