Dido & Aeneas [Les Arts Florissants]

Dido and Aeneas [Concert Version after the show staged by Deborah Warner and co-produced by Wiener Festwochen, Opéra-Comique and Nederlandse Opera]

Dido – Malena Ernman
Aeneas – Luca Pisaroni
Belinda – Judith van Wanroij
Sorceress – Hilary Summers
Second Woman – Lina Markeby
First Witch – Céline Ricci
Second Witch – Hanna Bayodi-Hirt
Spirit – Marc Mauillon
Sailor – Ben Davies

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 10 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

William Christie. Photograph: Simon FowlerWith this, the first of two performances of the opera on the same evening, Les Arts Florissants inaugurated a brief season celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of William Christie’s foundation of this pioneering baroque ensemble. The production, originally directed by Deborah Warner but without her involvement in these Barbican Hall presentations, was described in the programme as a “show”, Warner’s direction having been seen at Opéra Comique (Paris) and during the Vienna Festival, and is currently in repertory at De Nederlandse Opera.

The staging focused on the unresolved mystery of Dido’s inner turmoil. Malena Ernman externalised Dido’s misgivings in her masterly opening. Her tone had true backbone running through it, but not to the exclusion of human vulnerability. She captured perfectly her character’s ambiguous attitude to her suffering, declaring its existence but then recoiling in horror from making it public, looking round with unmistakable guilt, in fear of the truth coming out.

In this interpretation the significance of Belinda as character and engine of the plot is greatly enhanced. She is seen to be furthering her own ambition for Dido without reference to the vital enigma of the latter’s secret feelings. In her opening arioso Judith van Wanroij encouraged the Queen to accept Aeneas’s offer in a manner verging on the bossy. Ignoring the clear signs of Dido’s complex emotional state, she allowed emotion to override judgement and promoted the marriage rather in the way that a royal union in our own day was hailed as a “the stuff of which fairytales are made”. Her resplendent depiction of the partnership spread a contagious illusion, leading to the unanimous support of the chorus representing the Carthaginian people.

The hunting scene in Act Two found Belinda complacently performing to an audience of retainers. The Second Woman (Lina Markeby, who sang neatly but had a tendency to swallow her words) inconveniently brought up the story of Actaeon’s fate while out hunting and was summarily hustled away before any more damage could be done to the fairy-tale atmosphere. The combination of this and Aeneas’s arrival with a boar’s head visibly aroused the anxiety of the Queen, while going un-noticed by the actors. Belinda was in such a hurry to escape from the storm that she ignored her monarch’s anxiety.

Luca Pisaroni was a noble suitor on his first appearance, but rather bland initially in his reaction to the false messenger in Act Two, even if eventually his anger at the Gods’ demands flamed up powerfully. He took his verbal flagellation by Dido in the final scene sheepishly. His ripe bass-baritone and fine musicality suffered dramatically by comparison with Christopher Maltman. Aeneas’s dilemma was less strongly projected by Pisaroni, the recitative not fully brought to life.

Dido’s encounter with Aeneas in Act Three was potent. After caustically throwing his plea back in his face she pushed him away, to much consternation. They seemed not to notice, however, her immediate gesture of regret. Whilst not that beautiful in sound, Ernman’s portrayal of the physical weakening which resulted from her ingestion of poison was very convincing. At the same time Belinda’s role was completed, as she withdrew, distraught, to reflect remorsefully on what her machinations had led to. Van Wanroij had both embodied this interpretation dramatically with absolute conviction and sung throughout in a lyric soprano of marked distinction.

Dido thus emerged as a victim of personal and political manipulation. As for the supernatural agents of her demise, Hilary Summers played the Sorceress for laughs. Dressed in a black gown streaked with hell-fire, she played mercilessly to the audience, spreading her fingers wide, giving grinning, knowing winks and even wiggling her hips like an erotic dancer. Her vocal model was generally akin to Octavian’s funny voice as Mariandel in “Der Rosenkavalier”, while her familiarity with the Gilbert & Sullivan contralto tradition was evident in the pushing up of her chest register and the archly Pygmalion-like pronunciation of certain words. The two witches Céline Ricci and Hanna Bayodi-Hirt seemed to want to outdo her in over-the-top acting. Their actions embodied a disdain for men. In the last Act, as they saluted, Summers conducted a mock military inspection. Their accents became more grotesque as their plans became nearer to fruition. They lacked nothing in vocal terms: their duet in the cave, with its overlapping phrases and tricky descending scales was expertly executed. The orchestral sound associated with the witches also brought out some wacky instrumental effects, particularly in the Act Three dance music.

The sailors were led by the clear baritone of Ben Davies, unabashed as he adjusted his clothing, having just been torn from his own “nymph on the shore”. The other dynamic character in the opera is the chorus. Its members are required to play a wide range of different roles: concerned citizens, loyal courtiers, raunchy sailors, sub-witches, as well as commentators. Christie’s choristers are singers of high quality and disciplined musicianship. They encompassed the part-writing with ease, while also fulfilling their shifting dramatic functions. The cackling of the witches’ followers was not merely comical; with the weight of tone available from the chorus there was a genuinely sinister undertone. The final chorus was admirable musically, with its pin-point entries, and had finely-judged weight given to each of the statements of the phrase “soft and gentle as her heart” – very moving.

William Christie’s direction from the keyboard of this chorus epitomised the inspiration that he still provides for the current generation of members of the group. The band played splendidly across a wide range of moods, setting the tone from the opening Sinfonia, where the lamenting figures were drawn out, and the whiplash rhythms crisply articulated.

Though the text was displayed as surtitles, neither soloists nor choristers needed to have their words clarified, so clear was their enunciation. Criticisms of its crudity always seem to me misplaced: in such a taut opera as this the author’s (Nahum Tate) directness of expression in the dialogue is surely an advantage.

This was a performance fully worthy of the great tradition which Les Arts Florissants have established. But time moves on and the ensemble has also been engaged in propagating its genes, with several heads of baroque bands having emerged from its ranks. Christie has an eye for the future, having set up the nursery organisation “Le jardin des voix”, while two of the concerts in this celebratory series are being led by British conductors of the next generation. Meanwhile, the warmth of the Barbican Hall audience on this occasion was tangible.

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