English National Opera/Young Vic – After Dido

“After Dido”

A new film and theatre piece inspired by – and incorporating the full score of – Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”

Dido / Sorceress – Susan Bickley
Sailor / Stephen – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Aeneas – Adam Green
Helen (in the bedsit) – Amanda Hale
Second Witch / Jenny Helen Jarmany
Nell (in the study) – Helena Lymbery
Belinda – Katherine Manley
Dido’s Woman & Prologue soloist – Lina Markeby
Anna (in the kitchen) – Sandy McDade
Henry (in the study) – Dominic Rowan
First Witch – Madeleine Shaw
James Gower (bass)
Eamonn Mulhall (tenor)

Members of the Orchestra of English National Opera
Christian Curnyn

Katie Mitchell – Director
Vicki Mortimer – Designer
Leo Warner – Director of photography
Philip Gladwell – Lighting designer
Gareth Fry & Carolyn Downing – Sound designers

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 16 April, 2009
Venue: The Young Vic, London

Although it contains every note of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (at least, every note that has survived), played in the right order, “After Dido” is emphatically not a straight representation of the opera. But it does not make any claim to. Instead, what director Katie Mitchell presents in this “ENO at the Young Vic” production is a “film and theatre piece” merely “inspired by” Purcell’s masterpiece.

As the piece’s title suggests, Mitchell takes as her starting point the grief-stricken Dido, left bereft at the end of the opera, to portray scenes in the empty lives of three modern-day characters who are similarly mourning the loss of loved-ones.

A large cinema-style screen displays an ongoing film that cuts between scenes of the grieving characters, each inhabiting their own empty world of, respectively, a kitchen, a study and a bed-sit; the stage space bustles with cast and production crew making the film in real time. Close-up ‘cutaways’ of washing-up bowls or cigarettes being lit, and even flashbacks (such as distant memories of happy times on a beach), are very cleverly created live by stage-hands acting as arm/hand-doubles, and edited into the continuous film. These didn’t always perfectly synch, however, and neither did the sound-effects, leading to some unintentionally amusing ‘Acorn Antiques’ moments (such as the ‘snip’ of scissors which occurred a good second or two after a close-up shot of a phone SIM-card being cut).

The theatre/film element is striking and initially intriguing, but it was a novelty that wore off long before the, and the point of it was never wholly apparent. Mitchell’s get-out clause, for those who may not warm to her theatrical concept – that they can always just shut their eyes and enjoy the music –, proved false.

In this second performance (re-designated as press night) the continuous sound-effects – from background traffic/street noises to dripping taps, jangling keys, etceteras – proved loud and intrusive, preventing any appreciation of the music on its own terms. Purcell’s opera is relegated to the ignominious position of incidental music, part of the backing-track collage of Mitchell’s piece.

Insofar as it could be appreciated, the performance of the music was good, but not outstanding. Christian Curnyn’s direction (from the harpsichord) was lively and idiomatic, but – no doubt because of the music’s subordination to the hectic goings-on elsewhere – felt boxed-in, as though he was unable to give his instincts free rein. The string quartet of English National Opera players (on modern instruments), augmented by a viola da gamba and lute, provided sensitive accompaniment, but there were moments when more depth was needed than this one-to-a-part ensemble could provide.

The singing was generally very fine. Susan Bickley appeared to struggle with Dido’s opening aria, ‘Ah, Belinda’, running out of breath despite Curnyn’s brisk pace; but she soon found a surer footing and gave a moving account of ‘When I am laid in earth’ – played out to dreary visuals of one of the characters finally taking an overdose of the pills she had been toying with.

Katherine Manley was impressively fresh-voiced as Belinda, and Adam Green sang Aeneas with fervour. To refer to the opera characters in this context is nonsense, however; dressed in black and standing at microphones, the singers simply sung the music, they didn’t play the roles. The ensemble sung well, but too much of the performance was perfunctory or harried. Despite advice in the press-pack that the singers use microphones “when necessary” for the spurious-seeming reason “to synchronise the vocal sound with the relevant film footage”, the sound seemed natural (although the dry acoustic is not very flattering).

Mitchell’s conceit is undoubtedly effective: domestic misery is every bit as tragic and poignant as the grand, regal events of the operatic world – if not more so. The problem is that there is no development here, no story. The mood is powerful, but that’s all it is: a mood. There is little drama.

The overall result falls between two stalls: neither radical nor substantial enough as a theatre-piece, nor musically satisfying. It is a worthwhile endeavour to set Purcell in a new context and bring his timeless music alive to new audiences, but the music itself has to be treated with far greater respect than this production bestowed.

  • Performances until 25 April (not on 19th or 23rd) at 7.30 p.m. with a matinee performance on that final day at 2.30
  • Young Vic Box Office 020 7922 2922
  • The Young Vic
  • English National Opera

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