An evening of two halves
The production of Dido and Aeneas made its debut in 2006 at La Scala and in this presentation appears to be something of a test-run for the later assignment. The work itself differs from the rest of Purcell’s theatrical output not only by its length (it lasts little over an hour), but also by being a fully-fledged opera: whereas in his other stage works only the minor characters sing, here the action is through-composed and the most famous numbers are performed by Dido herself. McGregor’s basic concept here seemed to be an alternation of the static and the kinetic. Dancers were introduced to provide a linking movement between scenes, just as music would have served as a connection between moments of drama in a Restoration masque. The rumbling thunder which accompanied their arrival associated them with the witches, and made their choreographed gestures act as portents of the queen’s impending tragedy. The problem with McGregor’s solution to the conundrum of combining theatrical forces was that it consequently left his singers standing around motionless for the vast majority of the drama. Whenever the dancers were offstage -which was most of the time- the remaining cast were left to perform almost statuesque, dwarfed by an enormous stage that was barely filled by Hildegard Bechtler’s minimal sets. Even the chorus appeared awkward, shuffling between the stone scenery in attempt to occupy a space which was clearly too big even for their combined forces.
All of this was a shame, because musically things were as outstanding as one would expect from Covent Garden, particularly with a cast where many of the principals were making their house debuts. As Dido, Sarah Connolly gave a gravely beautiful performance, singing and acting (against the odds) with great authority and at all times projecting the sense of nobility which is essential to the drama’s quiet pathos. Her final lament was given with exquisite pianissimo shadings and provided the clear highlight of the performance. Alongside her, Lucy Crowe offered a bright-toned Belinda, one whose vocally agility and youthful urgency offered a happy contrast to Connolly’s sense of composure. The role of Aeneas is ungrateful and Lucas Meachem did not entirely succeed in raising him beyond the level of a cipher; but his resonant voice and physical charisma provided notable compensation. In the smaller roles, Sara Fulgoni sang an enjoyable Sorceress and understood the part’s requirements to perfection. If not quite in the Anja Silja league yet, she will undoubtedly gain even more authority over time. As the witches, Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza sported a remarkable two-person dress and musically they continued to build on their sound reputation amongst Covent Garden regulars.
In the pit on this occasion were the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who under the sensitive guidance of Christopher Hogwood provided an ideally light and fleet-footed accompaniment to the drama’s action. They carried on in fine form for the evening’s second half, which from a theatrical point-of-view at any rate proved to be a far more satisfactory experience. Acis and Galatea has variously been described as a serenata, a masque, an opera and even an oratorio (Covent Garden’s booklet note settles for ‘pastoral opera’) and debate has raged over whether it ought to be staged at all: Handel himself only performed it without acting and the score is absent of stage directions. The diverse functions played by the chorus -moving between active participants in and detached commentators upon the drama- presents basic theatrical problems and perhaps it was this very absence of a discernible line of tradition which liberated McGregor to produce a more adventurous, and certainly more carefully integrated, operatic production.
In this performance, the scene opened to a backdrop inspired by Cranach’s The Golden Age and the off-stage chorus were matched by a group of dancers on-stage performing as nymphs and shepherds. In turn, each of the principal parts was doubled by a dancer who added a welcome note of fluidity to the otherwise fairly immobile singing. The choreography here worked to illustrate the sentiments of the arias, adding an additional expressive layer to the performance and enhancing the general mise en scène through its grace and dramatic appropriateness. When Damon reflected upon the woes of lovers parting, the dancers’ delicately-spun movements were sensitively matched to the cadences of Handel’s music and the overall effect was like a Fragonard painting come to life: a fête galante enacted for the Royal Opera’s 21st century audience.
McGregor was in this case aided by a uniformly fine cast who were gamely prepared for the distinctive challenges of the production. Danielle de Niese created a splash at Glyndebourne when she made her debut as Handel’s Cleopatra and here she confirmed her reputation for physical beauty, vocal glamour and theatrical daring with a performance of Galatea as seductive as one would have expected. At present her singing lacks the completely commanding intelligence of Connolly or Sophie Daneman -there is a touch of the sentimental still lingering- but it was a highly promising interpretation nonetheless and her return is warmly welcomed. Alongside her, Charles Workman gave a marvellous rendition as Acis, full-toned and ringing, and he shaped the musical lines with irresistible verve. ‘Love sounds the alarm’ was a truly memorable moment and the glory of the music was convincingly brought home. His performance was matched by Matthew Rose (a former Jette Parker young artist) who sang the role of Polyphemus with wonderful comic energy and stage charisma, confidently baring his ample chest amidst the toned bodies on display. As Damon, Paul Agnew gave a finely-prepared, witty account and the minor parts all maintained the high standards of the rest of the performance.
Collaborations between the Royal Opera House’s two companies are rare events and this particular meeting unwittingly illustrated some of the potential pitfalls as well as some of the strengths. At its best, the combination of the two mediums can bring out elements that would otherwise pass unnoticed in a conventional staging: one can imagine Orfeo, Hippolyte et Aricie or even La Sonnambula benefiting from such an approach. The inherent danger, as with Dido, is that a single director is himself only confidently attuned to the diagetics of one particular art-form and the end-result is dramatically inert. This production was a brave effort to offer something different to Handel and Purcell’s widely-marked anniversaries, and Acis certainly deserves to be shown again for its theatrical invention and beautiful choreography. Next time, though, it might be sensible to employ a second hand behind the wheel to prevent this experiment from going frustratingly off-course.