Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas
Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, 2014
Culturebox - 13 May 2014
There's a certain amount of leeway built into Purcell's compositions which, like most early opera work, accounts for a variety of interpretation in response to the music and in how to make the work meaningful and accessible to a modern audience. Such is the degree of openness and richness in Purcell's operas, masques and semi-operas and the amount of improvisation required that it is even unlikely to sound exactly the same from one night to the next, never mind from one production to the another.
Musically that keeps things very fresh and immediate for the musicians and the singers - I'm sure there's never anything routine about performing such a work as Dido and Aeneas - but the same goes for the approach to staging. As I noted in a recent review of King Arthur, a considerable amount of thought needs to be given over to making those very old stories and their method of presentation accessible to a modern audience. The approach of Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie to Dido and Aeneas is very different from Sestina's for King Arthur, but the result is equally as effective.
While most Purcell operas require a certain amount of reduction and cutting back - as mainly masques or semi-operas they would originally have constituted a full evening's entertainment of songs, dance, music, drama and spectacle - Dido and Aeneas is a shorter work that was reportedly composed to be performed by a girl's school in Chelsea. The Rouen production however is one of the longest versions I've heard of the work, running to around 80 minutes rather than the usual hour or so. Whether extra music has been included or improvised and extended for the missing dance numbers, I'm not sure, but it at least gives the audience value for their money without having to pair it with another short work.
While there would be no question of this production providing a full evening's entertainment just from the spectacle of the stage production, Rouen's production shows that Dido and Aeneas is also a strong enough drama to sustain a longer performance. In fact, the epic nature of the mythological origins of the story almost calls out for a grander interpretation (if not quite of Berlioz Les Troyens dimensions) as long as it doesn't come at the expense of losing the necessary intimacy of the tragedy of the love of Dido and Aeneas. This is achieved in Rouen through a balance of the spectacle and the performance of the orchestra on period instruments.
The concept for the stage production seems to be based on the idea of the evocation of Dido's Carthage being a magic kingdom of ancient times, or one that has even more so become a place of wonder with the arrival of Aeneas, coming to these shores fleeing from the destroyed Troy, and falling in love with their Queen Dido. This is achieved without clever technical effects, using traditional methods of stagecraft with pulley operations, the colourful theatrical backdrops and lighting creating not a royal court but a blue bay flanked by rocky outcrops with nymphs dancing on billowing silk waves.
There are however stormy skies on the horizon which indicates that all this is about to change as the Sorceress appears and demands that Aeneas continue his journey to Italy. The set switches over to this change of mood cleverly, retaining a sense of 'merveilleux' as the rocky shoreline transforms into an undersea grotto where dark creatures scuttle acrobatically on the ocean floor, mermaids float and the Sorceress takes the form of a huge grotesque octopus. The tone is held marvellously by the design, and there are a few other clever touches in Act III, such as Dido's dress unravelling to become a sea that swallows her during her final lament.
If the stage setting provides the scale for the epic mythology, the music and the singing provide the necessary intimacy for the love story at the heart of the work. The musical arrangement for this interpretation follows the indications on the Chelsea score and is principally string based with some harpsichord continuo. Stings are plucked, lutes provide a solid rhythm along with a guitar, which is strummed at times to give an almost Spanish-guitar sound, but there's still a folk-music element there. Vivica Genaux sings well but doesn't have the richness, fullness or perhaps that certain English plumminess that the role of Dido requires. Henk Neven provides a good strong Aeneas, and Ana Quintans is a very fine Belinda.