Dido and Aeneas

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Published: 29th August, 2018

Congratulations a-plenty must go to the creators and collaborators of this performance, where outstanding young music students shared the stage with established artists. It was, I believe, the third such project this year. Presented by Melbourne Recital Centre and Ludovico’s Band, it also featured the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS) Chamber Choir, vocal soloists and instrumentalists.

While Dido & Aeneas is seen as one of Purcell’s foremost stage works, its significance and relevance – as noted by director Marshall McGuire in his warm introductory welcome – is that its first performance was at Josias Priest’s Girls’ School in Chelsea, London, in 1688. After 1705 it disappeared until 1895 when it seems to have been first staged in “modern times” by students of the Royal College of Music at London’s Lyceum Theatre. The first performance outside of England was by the University Society of Dublin in 1895, and a concert version was noted in 1924 at the New York City Town Hall.

We were invited by Marshall Maguire to embrace this youthful performance and to open our imaginations to the timelessness, the magic, the tragedy, the emotion and passion of the music. The large and enthusiastic audience in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was certainly ready to support the freshness of this presentation and imbibe a rare concert adaptation, albeit truncated performance of this great Baroque work.

With there being only a libretto from the first performance (1688?), and no score from Purcell’s hand, it is understandable that the opera has been embraced by youth in many new productions, particularly those staged in recent times, with liberties taken to feature contemporary dance, animated effects and a diverse portrayal of characters. So this concert presentation must have brought some challenges –delineating the contrasting “scenes” in the three Acts from palace to cave to ocean, balancing the young soprano soloists with the mature and passionate Dido (Sally-Anne Russell), and blending the modern strings with the well-loved magical mellow-toned Baroque instruments of Ludovico’s Band; while being authentic and economical, this invited the audience to embrace this superb music with added imagination.

The staging allowed the audience to fully see the ensemble of strings and continuo – with baroque violin, viola, violone, theorbo, guitar, seated stage left of the central position of harp/conductor, harpsichord, and viola da gamba. The additional VCASS strings, flutes and guitars were seated stage right. At times in the Overture and instrumental interludes the brighter modern instruments slightly overpowered and gained an edge on the softer, muted hues of the blended Baroque instruments, but this was adjusted with immediate sensitivity when accompanying soloists and chorus. The instrumental accompaniment was a fine and fabulous demonstration of the fusion from past to present, and the viola da gamba (Laura Vaughan) was rock solid in the chromatic ground bass for the famous opening and closing arias.

Sally-Anne Russell presented as a mature and confident, almost mythical woman, as Dido wearing her heart on her sleeve as the doomed leading lady. She demonstrated exceptional dynamic range, style and theatrical flair, seducing us with her musical expression and emotional delivery. With less of a share in the drama, Aeneas, tenor Jeremy Kleeman, was a well suited suitor in a modern black suit, black shirt and tie – vocally rich and strong, romantic and elegant –  clearly a man to die for!  Bethany Hill, as Belinda, Dido’s companion, was highly expressive and modern in her confident, clear and expressive lyrical lines. The most colorful dramatic staging occurred with the arrival of Sorceress Beatrice. Bearing a golden, shimmering shield used as a “wobbly board”, Jacqueline Dark brought sound and flashing lights with her arrival. From the VCASS chorus whose members lined the rear of the stage, five excellent young soloists became the minor characters required in the development of the tale. They all demonstrated impressive delivery of lyricism, intonation and mastery of Baroque counterpoint and expression.

As Church music comprised a large part of Purcell’s works, with choruses being more “motet-like” than operatic, the purity, beauty and freshness of the VCASS was a true delight. For every chorus entry I closed my eyes to absorb the sheer beauty of this young disciplined group who put forward a love of their singing together. By contrast, in “Come Away”, the shackles came off and chorus and conductor swayed with graceful ebb and flow to left and right in a purely musically imaginative setting. No props or scenery needed.

There were minimal pauses between Acts and scenes in this concert performance, and minimal costume, props or visual action and characterisation – just high quality musical stimulation. As this was a “quasi –theatre performance”, the main characters moved on and off stage through the drama and only Dido and the Sorceress were wearing “quasi period/symbolic costume” with colour and movement.  I found the modern dress of Belinda and Aeneas and the all-black dress of minor characters a little distracting and at times bewildering –  a consistency with simple props/removable costume items perhaps could have clarified the roles.

Lasting just one hour, the performance concluded with Dido and Belinda lying together sharing the foreseen tragedy. Dido’s final Lament –  When I am Laid in Earth, while being expressive and emotional, was sung with a slightly more gently forward moving tempo than usual – pleasantly beautiful, graceful and not overly ponderous, weighty or heavy.

As conductor, director and also harpist in the instrumental ensemble, Marshall McGuire demonstrated masterly and well-co-ordinated leadership. With mature and experienced soloists and fine instrumentalists, the VCASS students must benefit enormously from the chance to perform in this production.

Although they appreciated Dido’s plight, the audience did not leave in lamentation and mourning, but with satisfaction and admiration for this fresh, high quality performance. A delightful Dido!

Julie Mcerlain reviewed Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday  August 21, 2018.