mon 18/10/2021

Dido’s Ghost, Buxton International Festival review - the Queen of Carthage returns | reviews, news & interviews

Dido’s Ghost, Buxton International Festival review - the Queen of Carthage returns

Dido’s Ghost, Buxton International Festival review - the Queen of Carthage returns

Errollyn Wallen’s take on Purcell brilliantly splices rock and baroque

Remembering Dido: Isabelle Peters as Dido and Anna in Dido's Ghost at Buxton International FestivalGenevieve Girling

“Remember me!”, sang Dido to a departed Aeneas in the heart-rending aria-chaconne announcing her demise that dominates the ending of Purcell’s baroque opera. But what if he did … if in fact he never could forget her?

That’s the premise behind Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost, a work incorporating almost all of the original Purcell score but dovetailing it into a full-length chamber opera of her own, with accompaniments from a combination of the instruments required for Purcell and some much more modern ones including xylophone and other percussion, and an electric bass guitar. 

Performed by the Dunedin Consort, under John Butt, in a production by Frederic Wake-Walker, it premiered at the Barbican last month and has now moved on to Buxton International Festival before transfer to elsewhere including the Edinburgh Festival. The storyline itself (libretto by Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding) is derived from clas sical myth, just like Nahum Tate’s text for Dido and Aeneas, but takes us further on, to the time when Aeneas has become king of the New Troy on Italian soil, and has married Lavinia. Dido’s sister Anna is washed up on his shores after a storm, and to him she’s like a reincarnation of the Dido he loved and lost. 

Scene from Dido's GhostLavinia is not so impressed and gets so carried away that she has the Purcell work performed (as a “masque”) at court, with the Belinda (Nardus Williams pictured right) as Spirit of the Theatre asking Anna to join in as Dido, and Aeneas as himself. Aided and abetted by her spy, Elymas (who becomes the Sorcerer), Lavinia takes on the baleful role of the Spirit who tells Aeneas to dump Dido. The next bit of the Tate original is dropped, but we see Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, as the solo sailor, and once we realise that the “witches” and Lavinia are singing “Destruction’s our delight” about what they propose to do to Anna, there’s more of Wallen than Purcell in the ensuing splice. 

The composer brilliantly intertwines her own music with Purcell’s and uses references to it, too: her witches’ dance has a short, pounding bass guitar riff like a chaconne in itself (a big number, almost in rock style, this one) as Anna is woken from Lavinia’s spell. Aeneas sees Anna (or is it Dido?) and the accompaniment starts the Lament, but he is its singer, and she adds a counter-melody (another wonderful invention). 

Wallen builds tension with assured skill as Anna escapes, but Belinda tells Aeneas that she’s “hidden for ever in the healing waters”: cue more keening cries of “Remember me” and “Remember this” from the parted lovers. The Lament finally emerges in full from Aeneas’s lips as he prepares to end it all, and the chorus sing Purcell’s finale (with a little postlude from Wallen). 

It sounds like a mish-mash, and it's certainly complicated, but so ingenious and clearly presented on the stage that the re-working of the plot line and the combination of Purcell and Wallen seem to flow effortlessly in theatrical terms. There are many more hints and references from Wallen and Stace to the Tate-Purcell text (such as using “When monarchs unite” as text for part of the Wallen Act One), and the textures of the present-day instrumentation mixed with baroque sounds are themselves a fascination: bass-based, triad-led and melodically contrapuntal, as baroque music is, but thoroughly modern in rhythmic energy and dramatic in impact. 

The other powerful aspect of the show is the sheer quality of the performances. On the first night at Buxton, Isabelle Peters stepped up from the chorus to take the role of Anna/Dido, in place of the unwell Idunnu Münch. Peters, a WNO associate artist, was an outstanding Dorabella in a Royal Northern College of Music production of Cosí fan Tutte in 2016 and for those in Manchester had made an impression as Rapunzel in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Into The Woods shortly before. She is a gifted actress as well as an excellent singer, and unhesitatingly carried all the dimensions of the part on this occasion. Jessica Gillingwater brought incisive vocal strength and presence to the role of Lavinia, and Nardus Williams found an individual characterization of charm in Belinda, along with that richness of timbre that’s already impressed UK opera and concert audiences widely. Scene from Dido's GhostAdd to those the two witches’ performances from Lucy Goddard and Judy Brown of the Dunedin Consort ranks, and you have an exceptionally strong female line-up for John Butt to direct. Matthew Brooks’ Aeneas likewise sang strongly and with emotional awareness throughout, and Timothy Dickinson (Elymas) and Dunedin’s David Lee (Ascanius) were no less committed (the three pictured above). 

Wake-Walker’s production has the chorus on stage but taking part in the action even from their chairs (they turn away in horror as Aeneas is drawn to his fatal his doom by the Spirit=Lavinia), and the simple (no doubt budget-restricted) design by Anna Jones serves the story well. 

It’s a stimulating piece of creation and adaptation, done to a very high standard indeed, and may even be remembered as one of the most striking and original artistic products of the Covid era. 

The Buxton opera programme has also delivered Pauline Viardot’s salon-entertainment-with-piano version of Cendrillon, a charming piece of sentimental whimsy written by the great mezzo when in her 80s in the early 20th century, performed by the gifted “Young Artists” (mainly from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music) of Buxton International Festival, and the Early Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – sung and played outstandingly beautifully in a production that, not entirely successfully,  attempts to transfer the action to an academic symposium in the 1960s.

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