The expressive in-breath that preceded the opening string chord of Purcell’s chamber opera could easily have been taken by its collective audience, because when the main lights were extinguished in the New College Ante-Chapel, no one could deny it was magical. Indeed, when Dido (Lila Chrisp) graced the stage, we believed wholeheartedly that she was the Queen of Carthage, resplendent in a gold that stood out against the black anonymity of her chorus-courtiers.
However, though these initial signs – Dido’s stillness and the believable togetherness of the ensemble behind her – were excellent, this was a production that failed to move forward, or to develop beyond its opening. When she began ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’, Belinda (Gabriella Noble) was full of hope and cheer. I, like her, hoped for answers that never materialised: as to where director Michael Burden had chosen to place the piece, what the characters meant to each other, and which era we were situated in.
What we were granted instead was a confused design: a minimalist rectangular pillar with a single chair in front, in which Dido would at regular intervals, ‘Alice in Wonderland – like’ fall fast asleep. After which point Indyana Schneider, as a witch, could appear and transform her faithful chorus into something else. What they were meant to be each time, or what had exactly had changed was never explained.
Dido and Aeneas (George Robarts) have precious little time alone, but should be commended for the strength of their relationship in this sea of confusion. Their first meeting in particular could have been an interesting dramatic comment on the public nature of court: Dido is never alone but surrounded at all times by her chorus and Belinda. However, if this point were to be made, the chorus needed to be directed to understand their encroaching role. What we were left with were Alto (Connor Devonish), Tenor (Charlie Hodgekiss) and Bass (Robert Holbrook) standing awkwardly off-centre, not knowing where to look or how to react, and the two sopranos (Fleur Smith and Isabella Pitman) sat down and left invisible to all but the front row. Stillness and a chorus of duty-driven courtiers trained not to comment is one thing, but we ended up last night with five vacant faces lacking all the intensity required on stage.
Despite some serious theatrical issues, the singing is this opera’s saving grace. With music that speaks for itself, the individual performances were generally sensitive and well phrased. ‘Dido’s Lament’, an aria picked out for obvious reasons, was wonderfully paced and convincing. Noble should also be praised for her dramatic relationship with Chrisp, and I was pleased to see she could lose the original cheeriness when it counted.
Looking back, it is difficult to praise something that I spent the duration of feeling frustrated by. I cannot help but intuit a lack of enthusiasm by Burden for the space, or the dramatic possibilities of Purcell’s writing. Instead, music was the show’s great strength. It was a pleasure to hear Marguerite Wasserman lead; the stellar musical direction of James Orrell was evident; and the way the acoustic caught the individual voices, might just be enough to justify taking an hour out of your evening to see Dido and Aeneas.