Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, and Acis and Galatea by Handel, Royal Opera, April 2009

This was opening night for two new productions, featuring singers and dancers directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor. The music was played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

In Dido and Aeneas the dancers added colour, though not clarity, to what was otherwise a dull production that never really got to grips with the story. It’s a complex story to tell in a one hour opera, and I think the dancers hindered rather than helped our understanding of events. The essentials are that Dido, queen of Carthage, is miserable, but her spirits are raised when the Trojan prince Aeneas seeks her hand in marriage. In the meantime a sorceress, who is plotting the destruction of Carthage, sends a messenger, disguised as Mercury, to command Aeneas to leave Dido, who will then die of grief. The sorceress succeeds, and Aeneas leaves to fulfil his task of founding a second Troy, which will become the city of Rome. He changes his mind when he sees the distraught Dido, but she rejects him for having contemplated leaving her, and the opera ends with his departure and her death.

As to the singing, the best performer by far was Dido’s maid Belinda, delightfully sung by Lucy Crowe. Dido was Sarah Connolly, who was suffering from a cold and looked dreadful. The sorceress was Sara Fulgoni, Aeneas was Lucas Meachem, and Dido’s second maid was Anita Watson. The chorus was excellent and the music was well conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Acis and Galatea is a beautiful work, musically speaking. It was not composed as an opera, but as a pastoral serenata, which means it would be sung without elaborate staging, though the performers would probably have worn costumes. Many consider it as the very best of its type. This staging by Wayne McGregor was far too elaborate, detracting from the beauty of the work, and I kept my eyes closed for much of the time. The nymph Galatea was strongly sung by Danielle de Niese, in a costume and wig that made her look like some latter day Heidi in the Swiss Alps, seemingly out of place with the others. Her lover, the shepherd Acis, was well sung by Charles Workman, and the wicked Polyphemus, who kills Acis out of jealousy, was sung by Matthew Rose who was also suffering from a cold. The unusual thing about this production was that each of the principal roles, including two shepherds, was doubled up by a dancer (Lauren Cuthbertson as Galatea, Edward Watson as Acis, and Eric Underwood as Polyphemus). The dancers were clothed in body stockings, and although they performed their roles with excellent control and precision, and much though I love the Royal Ballet, it added nothing for me. The recent tendency to multi-media extravaganzas may owe something to the popularity of musicals, but I find it unsatisfying, and in this case I think it seriously detracts from Handel’s glorious music, which was brilliantly conducted by Christopher Hogwood, with the chorus doing a superb job.

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