Royal Academy of Music opera double-bill – Dido and Aeneas … The Lighthouse

Dido and Aeneas – opera in three Acts to a libretto by Nahum Tate
Peter Maxwell Davies
The Lighthouse – chamber opera in a Prologue and one Act to a libretto by the composer

Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Sarah Shorter
Belinda – Sónia Grané
Second Woman – Helen Bailey
Sorceress – Rozanna Nadylus
First Witch – Tereza Gevorgyan
Second Witch – Irina Loskova
Spirit – Rosalind Coad
Aeneas – Samuel Pantcheff
Sailor – Ross Scanlon

The Lighthouse
Sandy / Officer 1 – Iain Milne
Blazes / Officer 2 – Samuel Queen
Arthur / Officer 3 / Voice of the Cards – Andri Björn Róbertsson

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Iain Ledingham (harpsichord) [Dido and Aeneas]
Lionel Friend [The Lighthouse]

John Ramster – Director
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting designer
Patrick Doyle – Costume designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 May, 2013
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-HollandAn odd coupling, you’d think, Henry Purcell’s abandoned heroine and Peter Maxwell Davies’s ghost story, although the director for both, John Ramster, drew attention to their mythic qualities in the printed programme, and provided a hint of a link – the mask worn by the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas becomes the vision of the Beast in The Lighthouse.

Ramster kept to simple, rather baroque formality in the Purcell, with carefully choreographed movement among the nine roles and white costumes enhancing the tableau effect. Paradoxically, the staging gave the singers more space to expand, and I never felt that this was a production that tries to make Purcell’s perfectly-formed opera bigger than it is. Dido’s classical, draped gown suggested the antiquity of the story; the more-or-less contemporary costumes for the rest of the cast suggesting its timelessness. In its minimalist, fluid way, the staging is very effective.

Sarah Shorter was a subtle, still presence as Dido, her finely graded tone expressing Dido’s passion and anguish with intense directness. Her ‘Lament’, rather than being a plod through emotional glue, flowed freely, and Shorter’s skilfully managed diminuendo, with its absence of dramatic closure, neatly suggested the story’s immortality. Samuel Pantcheff as Aeneas didn’t have the same clean phrasing, but his nobility and weight in ‘Jove’s command’ hit the spot. Sónia Grané’s Belinda was a well-pitched foil to Dido, and her lyrical, bright singing matched the ease of her acting. As the Sorceress, Rozanna Madylus in her figure-hugging little Sarah Shorter as Dido (Dido and Aeneas, Royal Academy of Music, May 2013). © Royal Academy of Musicwhite dress was, mercifully, far from the cackling panto-crone of some productions, and her richly coloured voice and erotic presence clinched her strong performance – I wasn’t sure, though, about her pawing Dido during the ‘Lament’. Her two witches, Teresa Gevorgyan and Irina Loskova looked like identical twins and acted like the daffy Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous. Helen Bailey’s Second Woman and Ross Scanlon’s Sailor were both good. The chorus sang off-stage, which further played up the staging’s floating-world feel. The 12-strong string-band, led from the harpsichord by Iain Ledingham, was particularly effective in the dances.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse has no operatic equal in ghostly chill and ambiguity. The three singers play the keepers who vanished from their remote Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900 as well as the officers of the relief ship, who discovered the abandoned lighthouse. The ending of the opera is a blurring of fantasy and reality – like the mystery of the Marie Celeste this is a story that will never lay down.

Ramster’s production kept a few bits of furniture from Dido, but otherwise it was all down to smoke and mirrors, or rather mist and Jake Wiltshire’s stunning lighting – atmospheric, versatile, at times obliterating – it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the transporter chamber of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Perhaps Ramster missed a trick by not having the Prologue’s horn solo (as the leader of the inquest) placed in the auditorium, but we still got the feeling that something terrible was about to unfold, which was more than fulfilled in the ensuing main act. It was Samuel Queen as Blazes, Andri Björn Róbertsson as Arthur & Iain Milne as Sandy (The Lighthouse, Royal Academy of Music, May 2013). © Royal Academy of Musicno stretch of the imagination that the keepers could easily drive each other round the bend, each one of them powerfully characterised to create extremes of tension, claustrophobia and unravelling personality. Their three songs may be there to entertain, but there was no let-up in the opera’s grip, and their queasy confessions came across with dismaying clarity. The range of Iain Milne’s strong tenor was just right for Sandy’s compromised innocence, the baritone Samuel Queen was tragic and powerful in Blaze’s song, and Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson’s bible-bashing Arthur was a masterpiece of aggression and paranoia. Iceland does a good line in dark-voiced male singers with strong physicality, and Róbertsson looks and sounds very much in that tradition.

All three singers made an overwhelming impact, and when the 13-piece ensemble got into its considerable stride, the musicians and Lionel Friend did full justice to Maxwell Davies’s extraordinarily imagined, stream-of-consciousness score, now a 33-year-old classic.

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