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Dido and Aeneas

by on 16 May 2022

Melodious Enlightenment

Dido and Aeneas

by Henry Purcell, libretto by Nahum Tate

Richmond Opera at the Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, then at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 15th May

Review by Vicki Naylor

They know, the people who live in and around Barnes, how fortunate they are to have the OSO Arts Centre (The Old Sorting Office) as a theatre, and a theatre bar with a restaurant, overlooking Barnes Green.  There, dogs and children play and swans rear their cygnets in and around Barnes Pond with its tall bullrushes.

This brave and innovative theatre brought us, on a rather dull, damp Sunday afternoon, an example of the early English Enlightenment, an opera in the Baroque form by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Dido and Aeneas.

This concise, tragic opera is packed with emotion but lasts for only an hour.  The story is about choice, the choice that a recently widowed queen has to make between the responsibilities of monarch, that is her duty to the state, and her passion for a handsome lover, whose affection for her appears to be returned.  Some eighty years before Purcell composed his opera Queen Elizabeth the First had died a virgin, leaving no heir to the English throne.  There was still a concern that Catholics might take advantage to restore a Catholic monarch.  In the opera the Catholics are represented by sorcerers and witches.  These ‘evils’ are brilliantly portrayed by Catriona Murray, as Sorceress, Erin Holmes, as First Witch and Carolyn Burnley, as Second Witch.  We were envious of the dark, magical costumes and those long finger nails!

We were surprised to learn that Richmond Opera had performed this opera the night before at the Normansfield Theatre in Teddington, so congratulations to Tony Moss (Stage Director) and his unnamed crew for being able to set up, in just over two hours, orchestra places, seats, lights, chorus places and lighting.   Also they had lit signs on the back curtains for, ‘Palace’, ‘Cave’, ‘Grove,’ ‘Dock’ and finally ‘Palace.’

The orchestra was led by Joanna Lawrence.  She has played with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for many years and brings to the production all the necessary skills to enhance Purcell’s music.  The conductor, Lindsay Bramley (Musical Director) was rather cleverly standing to one side of the orchestra.  This gave the audience an uninterrupted view of the production and also meant that Lindsay’s face and her obvious enjoyment of the production was clearly evident. The orchestra was in front of the stage and she guided them with precision; Purcell is very demanding.   Also, she made certain the orchestral contribution did not drown the melodious offerings of the cast.

Returning to the plot perhaps one reason this opera is so relevant to today’s issues is, does enlightenment mean broadmindedness, civilisation and understanding?

‘Issues’ that it brings to light are important personal and political choices we are forced to make.  Dido, a queen in her own right, is a widow.  She falls in love with a brilliant, handsome and successful general who is returning from a war.  What a suitable consort he would have made for Carthage.  He returns her love but this is not a relationship blessed by Heaven.  He sees his responsibility as going to found Rome, a state that later destroys Carthage.  He is beguiled by sorcery, (The Catholics) who send Mercury.  In this production Mercury is danced by a delightful young lady from the Richmond Academy of Dance. 

Opera Atelier, Toronto , November 2016

The fundamental questions in life remain, despite ‘enlightenment’.  Dido loses her lover, he leaves her.  In Purcell’s time we imported a monarch from Holland, William of Orange whose legacy is our contemporary problem, ‘The Protocol’.  It remains unresolved.

Claire Doran, a beautiful soprano, sang Dido.  She is able to rouse our sympathy of making a difficult choice and the penalties that duty imposes on us when ‘duty’ can lead to severe depression.  Claire took us into mental darkness with her final aria, Dido’s lament.  We searched for our tissues.  Her last, dark aria is, ‘When I am laid to rest remember me ….  In thy breast but ah!  Forget my fate.’

Hugh Benson took on the role of Aeneas.  Hugh successfully brought to the opera his experience as a student at the Royal Academy of Music and his studies at Kings College.  We would have liked more decorations on his uniform, representative of a successful general … see Putin’s generals.  But medals would only distract from his fine voice and accuracy.

Luke Reader played First Mate.  He has admitted ‘understanding the character and ability to play, a final boozy goodbye’ and this clearly comes from his remarkable performances as Papageno in another production by Richmond Opera.

The Chorus, who are a key part of the opera, both sang with careful attention to the score and also acted as evil spirits supporting the witches and perhaps, more in character, and with consummate ease, the drunken sailors.   They teased the audience.  It is a small stage at the OSO.  None of the chorus fell getting on an off the small stage!  Their chorus, ’Come away sailors’ was exuberant.

Dido and Aeneas Cast, Richmond Opera 2022

Dawn Rolt played Belinda, Lady in Waiting to Queen Dido.  She has sung with Richmond Opera since 2018 and is also a member of Chiswick Choir.  Belinda’s beautiful gown in bright colours contrasted well with Dido’s funereal head scarf.  And Dawn came to us with an enchanting, accurate and emotionally supportive voice.  She in her turn was supported by the clear soprano voice of Patricia Gomez.

The opera ends with the Chorus singing, ‘With drooping Wings ye Cupids come’.  This is familiar to all because of its place in the annual Service at the Cenotaph.

Overall, the production told the story with clarity and accuracy.  It was a lively and exciting representation for aficionados of Purcell’s the ‘Best of Baroque’. 

We are looking forward to Richmond Opera’s next production of Handel’s Saul at Normansfield Theatre in November. 

We take our hats off to the OSO for their innovative approach to putting on this opera – and many other entertainments – in such a hidden space.

Vicki and Chris Naylor, May 2022

Photography by Stefano Bolognini, Bruce Zinger and David Dearlove

  1. celiabard permalink

    I enjoyed reading this comprehensive review of Dido and Aeneas performed by the Richmond Opera Company. It sounds an excellent production.

  2. I enjoyed this review as it concentrated largely on the performances and the well known story was concisely told

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