mon 22/07/2024

Dido and Aeneas, Armonico Consort, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury | reviews, news & interviews

Dido and Aeneas, Armonico Consort, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury

Dido and Aeneas, Armonico Consort, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury

Big-hearted Purcell and tear-stained Pergolesi from a chamber sized team

Elin Manahan Thomas: team player with a smiling voice

Spoiler Alert. It’s Act Three of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The witches have done their worst, Aeneas is about to take ship, and the tenor Guy Simcock steps forward as the drunken sailor to sing what – as music director Christopher Monks has confided to us before the overture – will be his first solo role with Armonico Consort.

At which point, the leader of the orchestra suddenly leaps up onto a chair behind him and starts belting out the sailor’s song himself, reeling tipsily about and fiddling all the while as Simcock slumps disconsolately back to the chorus.

“Brilliant,” you think, laughing. “A bit school play,” counters your inner critic. Whereupon the Wikipedia entry in your brain obligingly points out that a school play is precisely what Dido and Aeneas is.

The performances and sheer spirit kept disbelief at bay

That’s pure Armonico Consort. The group has a special knack for making first-rate performances of intensely serious music look like a lot of fun. This is the ensemble that introduced circus acrobats to Purcell’s King Arthur, and whose Handel pasticcio Too Hot to Handel was as smart, funny and effective as its title was groan-inducing. Two key figures in that project – countertenor William Towers and soprano Yvette Bonner (pictured below) – are on this short tour. Armonico Consort plays small venues, and has a lively ensemble spirit. But as the presence of Bonner and Towers plus soprano Elin Manahan Thomas demonstrates, its artistic standards are of the highest.

This isn’t one of their larger projects. The first half of the evening is devoted to a straight concert performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, with the emphasis on straight. Monks does it with pretty much the smallest possible forces: string quintet plus harpsichord, with a theorbo for added continuo colour. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t work, and in other venues on the tour it may well come across vividly – Monks and his band certainly gave the appearance of playing with considerable verve.

At Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury, though, much of the orchestral sound vanished into the black-draped stage. Manahan Thomas and Towers, standing well forward, projected more effectively into the theatre, and their performances were poised and expressive. Manahan Thomas’s voice took on a slightly boyish edge that rubbed exquisitely against Towers’s darker, more soft-edged sound in Pergolesi’s tear-stained duets.

Yvette BonnerThen came Dido and Aeneas, “quirkily semi-staged” as Monks put it. Well, demi-semi-staged, maybe: this too was essentially a concert performance, with the singers wearing evening dress and carrying scores. Did that matter? More, perhaps, at some moments than others. With every principal except Bonner either playing more than one character or diving in and out of the chorus, even this relatively slight plot occasionally got tangled.

Most of the time, though, the performances and the sheer spirit of the thing were enough to keep disbelief at bay. A bright-toned Eloise Irving (First Witch plus sundry more-or-less supernatural entities) hammed it up exuberantly; Towers’s voice felt almost too lovely for the Sorceress. Manahan Thomas was a smiling Belinda, while Gareth John as Aeneas travelled an impressive emotional distance over his few brief numbers. And at the centre of it all was Bonner’s Dido, creating an aura of nobility merely through the way she held herself on stage. A trace of a smile and a quick flick of the hair understatedly conveyed the onset of her fatal love – the impassioned richness of Bonner’s voice did the rest, and Dido’s great final lament, sung in a wonderful stillness, brought the whole performance into tragic focus.

Amidst all the action, the orchestral balance felt less of an issue: Monks gave the dance rhythms a playful spring but let the music expand and sing as the emotion demanded. With just enough drama there to do the job, this was an hour of top-drawer Purcell, beautifully sung in a big-hearted spirit. Armonico Consort are touring this programme to Poole, Yeovil and Crawley: if you’re in the vicinity, you needn’t hesitate.

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