Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday March 7 2012

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Deborah Warner. Sets and costuimes: Chloe Obolensky. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Dido: Malena Ernman. Aeneas: Nikolay Borchev. Belinda: Judith Van Wanroij. Sorceress: Hilary Summers. Second Woman: Lina Markeby. First Witch: Céline Ricci. Second Witch: Ana Quintans. Spirit: Marc Mauillon. Sailor: Ben Davies. Prologue: Fiona Shaw. Les Arts Florissants Orchestra and Chorus.

Deborah Warner’s beautiful production of what we used to call, at school in England, Dildo and Anus has been around so widely, geographically, on DVD and Blu-ray, and even in full, with Spanish subtitles, on YouTube (where most of its splendour is dimmed) it hardly seems worthwhile writing it up, unless for completeness. It is so beautiful that it seems carping to criticise either staging or singing (the orchestra and chorus are simply beyond criticism); and I’ve seen reviews in print repeat exactly what my neighbour said more than once: we shouldn’t “bouder notre plaisir” – pout at our pleasure.

So, visually first, a magnificent production, in a carefully chosen palette of black, white, cream, gold and shades of wine, from plum to lie-de-vin browns, with gorgeous, “Old Masterly” lighting – Caravaggiesque, some have said.

Purcell
The set is simple. The rear wall, behind a curtain of silver chains, is either bare brick with riveted iron pillars, or, swivelling round vertically, slightly shabby white panels with ornate mouldings. Centre stage is a raised square of black and cream mosaic with a smaller, pebbly square in the middle. There are wooden benches to left and right and scaffolds for spotlights and for people to climb on. When we arrive to take our seats, stage hands in black, with black headphones, are already lowering and raising canvases that will later hint at ships. Also, a whole troop of little schoolgirls in English uniforms are having lessons, practising dance steps, fooling around with wooden swords and so on with their rather "bobo" mistresses. So perhaps we’re in a posh girls’ school, where the mosaic platform is a little stage, where professional soloists are coming to perform Dido, and the girls will be the “extras”, do the dance numbers and sometimes play dead.

The evening opens with an actress, as English as they come, in jeans and Elizabethan waistcoat, reciting poems in guise of a prologue – as Opera Today summed it up: “Ted Hughes’s version of Echo and Narcissus and some bits of Eliot and Yeats on love affairs gone awry, just to put us in the mood for Arcady and broken hearts in lieu of an overture.”

Later, the mosaic will become a cool pond, with burbling water, birdsong, trees and falling leaves, for Dido to paddle in during a picnic after the heat of the chase. Later still, the pond will symbolise the sea as bare-chested sailors slide down ropes and prepare to leave before the unfurling canvas sail.

The central characters are, as one critic put it, costumed for Shakespeare in Love: the two ladies in plain but noble dresses, Aeneas dashing in Shakespearean leather jerkin, doublet and boots, and Dido in splendidly regal (Malena Ernman is probably the most convincingly regal figure I’ve ever seen on stage, looking remarkably like Princess Michael of Kent), strait-laced, straight-backed gold. The acting is serious: courtly love and genuine tragedy. Dido dies movingly, having cracked open a capsule and poisoned herself, in her ladies' arms.

The witches are comic: the dykey sorceress (who scatters the shrieking schoolgirls at her entrance) in Renaissance black breeches under billowing black skirts, smoking Marlboroughs, mimicking the lovers with disgust, showing her broad black bottom to the audience, disco-dancing to the music, setting off puffs of flame and conjuring forth (or, more correctly, down from above the proscenium) a storm of burly acrobats tangled together on ropes; her two skinny companions in modern, cocktail black. I’m not so sure if the witches should be played for laughs, when you think of what their mischief leads to, but they often are.

The chorus is in modern, London chic: black and dark-brown smart casual, like 30-something Notting Hill brokers and analysts gathering for drinks; or even with the slightly sinister, perfect-yuppie look of upmarket evangelical Christians.

The whole thing is perhaps a teeny bit too chic for its own good, more beautiful than – despite the wealth of detail and perfect acting – actually interesting.

That, of course, is pouting at one’s pleasure, as is finding Malena Ernman surprisingly short-winded and stiff-voiced as Dido: I wondered if she had a touch of cold, as so many people have at the moment (audibly so on Wednesday night. I might as well mention at this point that our other old friend, the mobile phone, went off, to Christie’s usual rage, in the long, silent pause between Dido’s conclusive “Away, away!” and the prelude to her dying lament. Perfect timing).

Borchev is no doubt a less elegant, more blustery-sounding Aeneas than Maltman, but fine by me. Some people actually booed Hilary Summers, whose “whooping” voice, that sounds in some ways more like a man singing falsetto than an actual mezzo, is certainly odd but not out of place in this character part. They booed the actress, Fiona Shaw, as well, presumably in protest against the addition of the anachronistic poems. That is surely taking pouting too far.

Opera Cake has also covered this show.

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