Last night the UoT’s early Music program presented Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the chapel at Trinity College. It was a bit of a strange experience. The work was semi-staged with dancers doubling Dido and Aeneas and a few extra as “chorus dancers”. With a twelve person chorus and all the soloists plus the small band this made for a lot of people in the space. Trinity College Chapel is long, narrow and high with traditional pew seating and a minimally raised platform for the altar. All of which meant that only the first few rows and , maybe, people on the aisle had much of a view of anything.
So, the two dancers; choreographer Bill Coleman clad only in a leather kilt and Mairi Greig, in a short, off one shoulder dress (which showed considerable dedication as the room was freezing cold), appeared, as best I could tell, to be using modern dance language to convey the inner emotions of the characters occasionally aided by being wrapped in a large red sheet. As most of the time all I could see was the occasional limb rising out of the mass of bodies I quickly tuned out and focussed on the music.
This was a bit of a mixed bag. Some very strong directorial decisions appeared to have been made about who Dido and Aeneas were. Dido dominates here and was sung for maximum fierceness and emotional impact by Ellen McAteer. Unfortunately too often she sacrificed beauty of tone for that impact and both intonation and diction tended to go with it. By contrast, Alexander Dobson was the gentlest, most introspective, Aeneas I have ever heard. Dobson has a big voice but here he was often almost whispering. To reinforce the reading his alpha male cameo in Act 2 was cut (most of Act 2 scene 2 was cut weirdly enough). This wasn’t Homer or Virgil’s Aeneas by a long chalk. It was very beautiful though. Agnes Zsigovics was a pretty voiced and effective Belinda. The witchy trio was led by countertenor Daniel Taylor (who also conducted) who sang the role in a fairly straightforward , unaffected way, ably supported by Elisabeth Hetherington, a particularly spunky and engaging First Witch, and Kristina Alexander. The Sailor and the The Spirit were cameos from distinguished british veterans of the early music scene. Charles Daniels gave perhaps the most inebriated reading of the Sailor’s Air in the 326 year performance history of the piece and Michael Chance, singing from high up at the back of the chapel gave an ethereally beautiful account of his message. The chorus performed admirably and the accompaniment from the six piece band was suitably idiomatic.
So, a bit of a mixed bag and a Dido and Aeneas quite unlike any of the many I’ve seen before. There’s another Purcell show on Thursday. This time featuring Come Ye Sons of Art and The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.