Dido’s Ghost – a new opera incorporating Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
**** (4 stars)
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a short opera in English, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, which was first performed at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London in 1689. It tells the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, who falls in love with the shipwrecked Trojan Aeneas and, when he abandons her, commits suicide. The music is spare and the emotions intense – the climax being Dido’s lament when I am laid, am laid in earth…remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Something I was unaware of – the Roman poet Ovid had written the story of Dido’s sister Anna, who flees Carthage after Dido’s death. She is shipwrecked on the shore of Aeneas’ new kingdom: he finds her and takes her to his palace, where his wife Lavinia becomes extremely jealous and plans to kill her. Dido warns Anna in a dream: she flees and, as happens in classical mythology, is saved by becoming a river.
The Scottish Dunedin Consort is one of the world’s leading baroque ensembles, whose performances I greatly enjoy. Perhaps surprisingly, it also champions contemporary music, having commissioned and premiered music by contemporary composers including Sally Beamish. They enthusiastically commissioned this work from composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace, which was directed by Frederic Wake-Walker and conducted by John Butt. Golda Schultz sang Anna/Dido to Matthew Brook’s Aeneas; Nardus Williams sang Belinda, Allison Cook was Aeneas’ wife Lavinia, and Henry Waddington was the Sorcerer. Sadly, the ‘bit part’ singers weren’t named in the EIF programme.
Had I known of Ovid’s work before watching the performance, I might not have been so sceptical of the story line – you should read your programme fully beforehand, no? As it was, a lot of the nuances were lost on me: quite why was a long piece of blue-green netting screening the band at the beginning and end of the piece? Ah – it was the river from which Anna emerged and to which she returned… There was some impressive stylised balancing of a small dish as the sorcerer urged Lavinia to apply warpaint before going after Anna, and a lot of stylised gesturing.
Errollyn Walker’s music was a mix of many different styles – at times I thought I heard snatches of Purcell among the shivering and banging, tinkle plonk percussion and unlovely vocal lines: there was a lot of ‘atmospheric’ music and a fair amount of shrieking [and thank goodness for the supertitles or I would have been completely lost!]. I found the contrast of musical styles at times hard on the ear, increasingly so as the piece progressed and the switch from one to the other became more frequent – I felt an internal sigh of relief each time we swapped back to the familiar, restrained yet passionate, music of Purcell.
I also found that the voices’ quality changed with the change of composer – the contemporary singing was largely strident and not very lovely, while the same singer in Purcell sang beautifully, the anguish no less passionate, but not needing to beat you over the head with it. The ‘play within a play’, the Purcell opera, was beautifully performed, with some superb chorus work and small but essential solos and duets for some of the chorus members – but it ended without Dido’s searing lament, which puzzled me – until, nearly at the end of the piece Aeneas, having had an exchange with Dido’s ghost, himself launched into the lament. And this made sense of everything that had gone before, the power, the passion, and the incredible ornamentation of the melody combing compellingly to express Aeneas’ grief at his great loss.
I wish the performance had ended there, but there had to be a final chorus, a postlude and a fadeout, which for me diminished the powerful effect of the lament. Much of the audience, however, thought the whole thing a triumph, and surged to their feet with rapturous applause, while I snuck out into the drizzle to get the first of my buses home…