Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas
Opera North, 2013
Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Lesley Garrett, Pamela Helen Stephen, Phillip Rhodes, Amy Freston, Gillene Herbert, Heather Shipp, Louise Mott, Jake Arditti, Nicholas Watts, Rebecca Moon
Grand Opera House, Belfast, 8 March 2013
Opera North's Winter 2103 touring programme wonderfully covers four centuries of music, with Mozart's Clemenza di Tito from the 18th century, Verdi's Otello from the 19th, Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine from the 20th century and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas from the 17th century. It's the combination of the latter two operas on the same bill however that represent the widest dynamic in such a way that they hardly seem complementary at all. In reality however - particularly with the source of Dido and Aeneas stretching back 1,000 years to its source in Virgil's 'Aeneid' - what they demonstrate is the universality and commonality of human emotions that still have resonance in the 21st century.
The common theme that relates the two works is of course one that opera has specialised in over the years - that of the woman seduced, betrayed and abandoned. The two works given here however represent lesser-known examples of that theme and certainly approach it musically and dramatically in very different ways. As different as they are however, they each present a unique take on the subject and stand as important, powerful pieces that demonstrate the power of expression of the operatic art form.
Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1959 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau based on his own 1930 dramatic monologue, the one-act opera La Voix Humaine is unusual opera work in that it is written to be performed and sung by a single person, and sung moreover as a one-sided conversation that takes place on the telephone. The unnamed woman ('Elle') is alone in her room, waiting anxiously for a phone-call from her ex-lover. The conversation, occasionally interrupted by the unreliable service and a party-line, reveals that the man who had been her lover for five years is now about to be married to another woman and 'Elle' has been contemplating suicide.
There's an interesting ambiguity and modernity in the fact that the woman's desire for the warmth of love in the comforting sound of the human voice (la voix humaine) is brought to her electronically through a telephone line, but Poulenc and Cocteau's little drama abounds in such contradictions and ambiguities. Is it a monologue or really a one-sided dialogue? A dialogue would imply that the conversation is two-way, but it's clear that there is only one person who hopes to gain or express anything through the conversation. In many respects, the woman is speaking to herself, grasping at the meagre lifeline that is being held out, but only for as long as the call lasts, trying to fool herself that all is not lost. When that is gone all she is left with is that terrifying figure she sees reflected in the mirror before her.
Opera North's production, directed by Aletta Collins, played further on the ambiguities within the work with some clever visual references to that hateful mirror. It not only reflects the truth about her lie that she is glamorously dressed after an evening dinner date, revealing instead a tired, graying woman on the edge of breakdown contemplating a bottle of pills on the dresser, but she can also see reflected in it all the horrors of her imagination, seeing her ex-lover enjoying parties and affairs with other women. It's as vivid a visual representation of the harsh reality of the woman's situation and her mindset as it is possible to imagine.
With Lesley Garrett singing the role of 'Elle', it's also about as effective and expressive a performance of the woman's situation as you can imagine. Poulenc's composition of the music and the singing part reflects the cadences of the spoken voice in a similar way to how Janáček would write, with rhythms and pauses, the rising and falling of tones and inflections, but evidently that's particularly relevant to a work that is called La Voix Humaine. As a singer whose spoken voice alone is most musical, Lesley Garrett is the ideal kind of singer for this kind of piece, even if it is far from the more popular style of singing that she is famous for. Her every gesture and inflection - singing the work in English - was perfectly judged in a way that made her character's circumstances compelling to watch and her inevitable fate as touching as it was chilling.
Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) is one of the earliest versions of a subject that Francesco Cavalli first covered in his opera La Didone (1641), but which became something of a standard in the Baroque opera repertoire with at least 50 works adapted to Pietro Metastasio's libretto (Didone Abbandonata) in the 18th century (including Hasse, Galuppi, Porpora, Vinci and Piccinni). It might not have been the model that Poulenc's La Voix Humaine draws from, but the essential characteristic of a woman left to face her demons alone is just as vividly depicted in the fate of Dido when her lover Aeneas, who has "stopped over" in Carthage with the fleeing Trojans and then abandoned her to fulfil the destiny that the gods have in store for him in Italy.
Although it is fully scored - innovatively without recitative at this stage in the development of opera - and has a larger cast than Poulenc's mono-opera, the strength of this version of the Dido and Aeneas story (unlike Berlioz's Les Troyens, to take the most extreme example) is that it similarly focusses all its musical and dramatic elements on the predicament of the lone figure of a woman abandoned. Dido's confidante Belinda tries to warn her and turn her away from her dark thoughts and Aeneas even appears and attempts to put his case to her, but the opera remains firmly viewed from the perspective of a woman who has suddenly become aware that her youth and happiness are slipping away.
Like the reflections in the mirror of La Voix Humaine, Dido's thoughts, fears and nightmares are vividly real, given human form in witches and visions of herself - as a younger woman? - that follow her, mimic her, torment her and drive her to her doom. This element is beautifully expressed in Aletta Collins' direction and Giles Cadle's set design of the darkened bedroom of long shadows, with spectres in the form of dancers that slip out from under and behind the bed, hovering in the background and persistently at the edge of Dido's vision until they overwhelm her.
Just as effective is the rhythmic drive of Purcell's score as performed by the Orchestra of the Opera North under conductor Wyn Davies, switching over to Baroque period instruments after the interval. Although Dido threatened to become swamped by the figures and doppelgangers of her nightmares, there was no danger of Pamela Helen Stephen losing her grip on her character. Purcell's Dido is as strongly defined as any of the many different depictions of this character in other works. It may be short, around an hour long, but the focus on Dido and her reaction to her predicament is deep and intense. Stephen gave that full expression in her singing, never more so than in those final moments of Dido's rejection of Aeneas' weak justifications.
Like the other two productions in this Opera North Winter 2013 touring programme, there was a wonderful completeness and attention to detail in the concept and the execution for both these short works. From the casting of the roles, the direction of the performances, the staging, the costumes and the musical delivery, great care has evidently been put into making sure that everything comes together as a whole to express these works in the best possible light, and that was all the more evident in the complementary approach taken towards works as diverse as La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas, separated by almost 300 years, but shown here still to be vital and relevant in the 21st century.