A funny thing happened on the way to Carthage

Opera Atelier’s  production of (mostly) Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas opened last night at the Elgin.  I say “(mostly) Purcell” because director Marshall Pynkowski had decided to add a Prologue.  As he explained in his introductory remarks nobody reads Virgil’s Aeneid anymore so it was necessary to play out the back story in a prologue.  I find this pretty patronising.  It’s not a particularly convoluted story and I would have thought that the gist of the story is well enough known to most opera goers and, you know, some of us have read the Aeneid.  Besides, even without detailed knowledge of the back story there’s nothing remotely hard to understand.  FWIW the dumbing down carried over into the surtitles with, for example, “Anchises” rendered as “his father”.  Anyway we got a prologue spoken by Irene Poole while the orchestra played other Purcell airs followed by a bit of extraneous ballet and poor Chris Enns (Aeneas) and Wallis Giunta (Dido) running around making the stock baroque “woe is me” gesture.  I guess it made the piece (plus Marshall’s speech) long enough to justify an intermission, which was taken after what is usually Act 2 Scene 1, but the prologue was neither necessary nor welcome and I think the ensuing intermission was an unnecessary break in the flow of the action.

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On to Purcell and Tate’s piece.  I don’t agree with Pynkowski that Dido and Aeneas is the greatest opera in English ever written (but then I’ve seen stuff written after 1850) but I do think it’s a very good English (very English) opera and it isn’t improved by being turned into a second rate French ballet lyrique.  For almost the whole of the first act there was ballet; the usual remix of OA’s greatest hits, which forced a rigidity into the music that I think is at odds with its essential character.  Coupled with the usual highly stylized acting it resulted in an effect that was definitely more Louis XIV’s Versailles than Restoration London.  Things did improve in the second half though not before the mandatory castanet dance had been inserted in a truly WTF moment.  The acting remained stilted but at least the singers were able to sing with a little more metrical flexibility.

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As to the singers, the star was clearly Wallis Giunta.  She has a lovely voice and it was most effective when it really mattered i.e. in The Lament where she really took advantage of the freedom from a dance rhythm.  She also took some of the classic lines with real relish “Thus by the fatal banks of Nile, weeps the deceitful crocodile” with a real snarl at the end.  She also, of course, looked fantastic.  It was the usual heaving bosoms aesthetic and Wallis heaves with the best of them. Chris Enns made the most of Aeneas.  He doesn’t have a lot to do and he’s not a big, booming Aeneas like, say, Lucas Meacham but he’s pleasing to listen to.  Plus any guy who can appear in tights with a pig’s head on a stick and not look utterly idiotic deserves a break.  I’m really not sure that Meghan Lindsey was a good choice as Belinda.  A mezzo Dido really needs a light, bright soprano foil and Meghan is on the bigger, darker side with rather a lot of vibrato.  Laura Pudwell as the Sorceress seemed a bit understated, which is odd.  I thought the Mercury episode too needed more menace and eeriness than it got.  Her sidekicks, sung by Ellen McAteer and Karine White were a highlight.  They had a bit more freedom to move naturally, sang well and generally brightened things up.  Cory Knight as the Sailor rounded out the cast effectively enough though the staging of that scene was weird.  After all nothing says sailors like long red coats with gilt buttons and knee breeches.

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I’m not sure about the decision to use a small male chorus supplemented by a relatively large children’s chorus. (singing from the boxes as usual).  The myth that Dido and Aeneas was composed for a girls’ school dies hard.  I think I would have preferred a smaller group and a more focussed sound though part of the issue may be the problematic Elgin acoustic.  Tafelmusik were their usual excellent selves.  David Fallis conducted.  I think a lot of his choices must have been constrained by the amount of dance on stage.  There was a rigidity I find alien to a piece steeped in a more flexible English musical tradition.

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So, in summary, it’s Dido and Aeneas crammed into the Opera Atelier straitjacket and I realise that complaining about that at this point is like complaining that Andrew Lloyd Webber recycles the same tunes over and over.  So it goes

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Photo credits: Bruce Zinger

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4 thoughts on “A funny thing happened on the way to Carthage

  1. I’ve read that Purcell originally had a prologue for Dido and Aeneas for performances around 1689 and in the early 1700s. Apparently the prologue became lost six decades after Purcell composed the music, libretto by Nahum Tate. Interesting that director Marshall Pynkowski restored a prologue to Opera Atelier’s excellent production.

    • I should say add more correctly, that the prologue (and part of act 2 and some dances) were lost within six decades, and it has been suggested that the original prologue was lost before 1710. (Curtis A.Price, author of Henry Purcell and the London Stage, pages 239–245.)

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