Friday 17 April 2009

After Dido, English National Opera, 16 April 2009

Young Vic Theatre, London

Dido/Sorceress – Susan Bickley
Sailor/Stephen – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Bass – James Gower
Aeneas - Adam Green
Helen (in the bedsit) – Amanda Hale
Second Witch/Jenny – Helen Jarmany
Nell (in the study) – Helena Lymbery
Dido’s Woman/Prologue soloist – Lina Markeby
Anna (in the kitchen) – Sandy McDade
Tenor – Eamonn Mulhall
Henry (in the study) – Dominic Rowan
First Witch – Madeleine Shaw

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designer)
Leo Warner (director of photography)
Philip Gladwell (lighting designer)
Gareth Fry, Carolyn Downing (sound designers)
Pia Furtado (assistant director)
Helena Lymber (artistic associate)

Members of the Orchestra of English National Opera (Janice Graham, Matthew Ward (violins), Amelie Roussel (viola), David Newby (violoncello), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), David Miller (lute/baroque guitar))
Christian Curnyn (harpsichord/conductor)

It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of reviewing After Dido as if it were a production of Dido and Aeneas. Such would be a mistake, not least since any reservations one might voice could then be written off as a consequence of having failed to understand the nature of the beast: an opera critic at sea in the world of contemporary theatre. What, then, is After Dido? It is described as ‘a live music and film performance inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas’ and at its core, at least in one sense, stands a performance of Purcell’s masterpiece: ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot,’ as Raymond Leppard so memorably once described it. However, Dido and Aeneas is not produced on stage; After Dido is. This tells, in the words of the publicity material, ‘three contemporary urban stories of grief, lost love, departure, and death,’ which unfold in self-contained locations on different sections of the Young Vic stage. But After Dido is also to be found in ‘the making of’ these stories.

This ‘making of’ is not really a story in itself, after the manner of, say, Ariadne auf Naxos, yet it acquires a dramatic thrust of its own, not least since it is with these ‘workings’ that the piece opens, in the prologue – Dido’s own Prologue is, of course missing – to a radio broadcast, in which we hear recorded snatches of other items of Purcell’s theatre music. There were times when I wondered whether viewing of the technicians, moving cameras, actors other than the ‘principal’ actors performing the close up shots and sound effects, and so on, was all a little too much to follow. That, however, may partly have been the point, or at least one of the points, in that each viewer therefore had to decide at any point whether to watch part of ‘the making of,’ the actor(s) on stage, the actor chosen at that moment for display on the screen above the stage, or the musicians – or indeed, to flit between them, or to try to watch more than one aspect at once. To witness, for instance, one of the ensemble – I cannot now remember which it was – being filmed moving a light bulb over a window, whilst seeing this cleverly projected as the passing of car headlights in another ensemble member’s flashback, whilst also watching that second member reacting to the ‘live’ broadcast of Dido and Aeneas upon the three hundred and fiftieth year anniversary, without even considering the possibility that one might be at least partly watching one of the other stage events, presents multiple possibilities for the viewer, guided though he may be by the decision concerning which aspect is being shown on film at that time. I purposely use the word ensemble, since the boundaries between singers, actors, and ‘stagehands’ are fluid. Susan Bickley, having a little break from singing Dido and the Sorceress, is seen washing up at one point. This does not seem gratuitous, since a true sense of theatrical ensemble is thereby achieved. Sadly, this does not include the musical players; perhaps this would simply have been too difficult to integrate, but it is a thought. The work of the entire production team is throughout of an extremely high standard, Leo Warner of Fifty Nine Productions Ltd, working again with Mitchell, as he did for her National Theatre productions of Waves and Attempts on Her Life. Little is said, only‘BBC’ radio announcements and a few punctuating ‘readings’, but then it appears nothing need be said. Perhaps we ordinarily rely too much upon the spoken word, when music and visual stimulus can provide so much.

The ‘stories’ themselves relate to loss of one sort or another, just as Dido itself does, although there is none of the anticipation that characterises the opera’s opening scene. The time scale could hardly have accommodated that, given that the stories operate in ‘real time’. We witness a lonely girl, Helen (Amanda Hale), in her bedsit, play with her derisory ‘meal’, wind blowing in and traffic passing outside her window, as she moves towards her overdose. Henry (Dominic Rowan) contemplates the breakdown of his relationship, made utterly apparent when joined later on by Nell (Helena Lymbery). Clearly, the sooner a decisive break is made the better. Most moving for me was Sandy McDade’s superlatively well acted Anna, dealing in her kitchen – and outside in the garden, thanks to typically virtuosic camera work – with a bereavement. At one time, we actually see her dancing, both on stage and on screen, with whomever it is she has lost, but her facial expressions, her trembling hands, her tears, are perhaps more telling still.

What of Dido itself? It would be remiss not to comment upon the musical performance at all. A string quartet and continuo group, directed from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, provide the ‘orchestra’. If there were times when I should have preferred a fuller, warmer sound, what we heard was by the same token rarely unduly abrasive, although it veered somewhat between different styles of Purcell interpretation, the violins sometimes sounding more like old ‘fiddles’, sometimes more like members of a Classical quartet. I could not always discern why this should be so, but it did not worry me unduly. Tempi were generally on the brisk side but were not unyielding, which is more important. Purcell’s dissonances have been more searing; there was plenty of dissonance on stage, however.

Susan Bickley was excellent in her dual role. Everyone who knows Dido will have a favourite artist or favoured artists in the title role; it is that kind of piece. I for one can never forget Dame Janet Baker and also retain a great fondness for Victoria de los Angeles. Bickley has her own ideas, proves ever musical and ever attentive to the text, and certainly penetrates to the nub of the drama, though I sometimes found her voice a little lacking in refulgence. By the same token, however, one might wonder whether her Lament was unduly undercut by the amplified ticking of an alarm clock; I know this is not a production of the opera as such, but it seemed a pity. As the Sorceress, she did not opt for the overt pantomime vocalisation of the unforgettable Monica Sinclair (on the Baker/Antony Lewis recording), but there was a differentiation of voice, a certain ‘old Englishness’ to the differentiated portrayal. Adam Green’s Aeneas was sometimes less than ideally focussed, but the rest of the musical ensemble was of a consistently high quality.

Part of the reason for ENO’s collaboration with the Young Vic is to reach a different audience from that which typically visits the Coliseum. This is definitely to be applauded and I can imagine that the name of Katie Mitchell will do no harm in attracting curious theatre goers, as opposed to opera fans. After Dido is an intriguing piece, which is certainly to be preferred to a stale and vain attempt at reconstruction. It is a pity that no one seems especially interested in a more radical take upon Handel’s operas, in this shared anniversary year. Musical virtues notwithstanding, their theatrical weaknesses are rather more glaring than any in Purcell’s miniature, if incomplete, tragedy, so a rescue bid would doubtless be appreciated by those of us without the coterie of the at least slightly fanatical. Still, that problem is no fault of this production, which may well prove one of the more notable contributions to the anniversary celebrations.