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Prom 7, Dido and Aeneas, La Nuova Musica review - bold and original from the start | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 7, Dido and Aeneas, La Nuova Musica review - bold and original from the start

Prom 7, Dido and Aeneas, La Nuova Musica review - bold and original from the start

Levity as well as sadness from David Bates' ensemble, searing intensity from Alice Coote

Dignity and anguish: Alice Coote as DidoChristopher Christodoulou

How do you celebrate one of epic poetry’s richest female characters, a queen renowned across the Middle East and North Africa for being as politically powerful as she was magnetic? For Nahum Tate, the librettist for Dido and Aeneas, the curious answer is to push aside Dido’s achievements as a ruler and city builder and replace Virgil’s stirring metaphor for her plight with something, well, a little tamer.

It’s no small part of the great achievement of Purcell’s score that it takes Tate’s frankly mediocre poetry and through harmonic and rhythmic innovation transforms the base metal of his words into the gold standard of the Latin original. In a stirring performance last night at the Proms – fusing thoughtfulness and playfulness, dignity and anguish – La Nuova Musica, conducted from the harpsichord by David Bates, revealed once more why Dido remains a great tragic figure for our times.

The bold intelligence of this interpretation – which marked the group’s début at the Proms – was clear right from the start as the Lento section of the Lully-influenced overture was played with a mellifluous lyricism that eclipsed the rhythmic formality. It was only in the repeat – which came across almost as an angry retort to the opening – that the dotted rhythms were vigorously asserted, before a dynamic Allegretto moderato section in which the notes interwove as deftly as a flock of birds.

The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote took the role of Dido, moving back and forth across the stage with an agonised distraction that demonstrated, even before she sang, both the conflict and profundity of her emotions. Bates directed the orchestra so that there was a lengthy silence between the chorus and Coote’s first note; when it came it was simultaneously an expression of dignity and undiluted pain. Famously Dido’s first scene is in C minor to underscore the foreboding she feels about letting her guard down with Aeneas. Coote heightened this both through the searing intensity of her sustained notes and through her subtle emphasis of linguistic echoes like the “anguish” in “languish”. Scene from Prom DidoObviously there was some while to go till the tragic climax and Bates’ direction ensured that we experienced the levity as well as the sadness of what most people judge to be England’s first opera. As Dido’s sister Belinda (played with lucidity and empathy by Gemma Summerfield) encouraged her to be optimistic about Aeneas’s intentions, four theorbos upped the rhythm so the chorus was delivered at a joyous gallop. Coote in turn allowed her delivery to become more extrovert and upbeat. The dance-like release when the company sang "Fear No Danger to Ensue" was as exuberant as it was elegant.

Her great love interest, Aeneas, was played last night by the baritone James Newby (pictured above with Summerfield and Coote), a former BBC New Generation Artist and Rising Star for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Newby is no stranger to innovation; on his website you can watch an extraordinary video in which he performs Handel’s "Cara pianta" from Apollo e Dafne while being half drowned in a diver’s helmet, as a direct tribute to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in No Surprises. Here, however, he embraced Aeneas’s emotional detachment a little too much – next to Dido and Belinda he seemed a bit of a stuffed shirt. It was only towards the end that the full expressiveness of his rich voice allowed him to seem more than a cipher for higher forces.

Tate’s great innovation, of course, was to replace the battle between Venus and Juno in Virgil’s original with a plot led by witches. Tate’s innovations were frequently dubious; this is, after all, the man who gave the world King Lear with a happy ending, and also translated a paper on syphilis into heroic rhyming couplets. La Nuova Musica, however, have heightened this element of the work with a serious exploration of the emotions that might have shaped women seen as outsiders in society at the time. Madeleine Shaw was a powerfully angry sorceress while Helen Charlston’s delivery as first witch was thrillingly elemental. Scene from Proms DidoThe final part of the opera was introduced by a sailors’ dance that was as cheekily choreographed as it was outrageously camp (Nicky Spence, centre, pictured above). But this of course, was a final burst of light before the descent into darkness. By this point Belinda’s comforting words were worthless. Bates directed the chorus before Dido’s death so it had the pathos and texture of a Bach chorale.

"When I am laid in earth" is always going to be the focal point in any production of this opera, and Coote delivered it in a way that showed that Dido had never been more alive than at the point of her destruction. There was a simultaneous fluidity of expression and resolute stillness at the heart of her performance. As she sang “Remember me” the notes conveyed the full complexity and resonance of her grief. You could imagine them echoing across the wine-dark sea as Aeneas sped away in his relentless quest to be a hero.


Nahum Tate’s innovations were frequently dubious; this is, after all, the man who gave the world 'King Lear' with a happy ending


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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