Friday 17 May 2013

Dido and Aeneas/The Lighthouse, Royal Academy Opera, 16 May 2013

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Dido – Sarah Shorter
Belinda – Sónia Grané
Second Woman – Helen Bailey
Sorceress – Rozanna Madylus
First Witch – Tereza Gevorgyan
Second Witch – Irina Loskova
Spirit – Rosalind Coad
Aeneas – Samuel Pantcheff
Sailor – Ross Scanlon

Sandy, Officer 1 – Iain Milne
Blazes, Officer 2 – Samuel Queen
Arthur. Officer 3, Voice of the Cards – Andri Björn Róbertsson

John Ramster (director)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Patrick Doyle (costumes)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Iain Ledingham, Lionel Friend (conductors)

Samuel Queen (Blazes), Andri Björn Róbertsson (Arthur) and Iain Milne (Sandy).
Pictures © Royal Academy of Music, May 2013

Not the most obvious of pairings, perhaps: Dido and Aeneas and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. One can certainly find connections if one tries, as director John Ramster valiantly did in his director’s note, especially with respect to the role of Fate. And of course one can make connections between most things if so inclined, when placed together. This, however, seemed more like an evening of two halves.

The performance of The Lighthouse was spectacularly good, at least a match for the recent English Touring Opera production, and arguably still more theatrically gripping. (How fortunate we are to have had two stagings in close succession!) There was not a great deal in the way of scenery; much was done with Jake Wiltshire’s brilliant – at some points, literally so – lighting, by turns suggestive of the lighthouse itself, the red eyes of the Beast, and much more. Ramster and his colleagues engendered a terrifying sense of claustrophobia and whatever horror – production, like opera, leaves matters tantalisingly unclear – it is that actually takes place. The sheer hell of being cooped up together, the promise of release having clearly been frustrated more than once, is conveyed viscerally, more by the characters’ interaction than anything external, and thus all the more powerful for it.

For that, of course, the three singers should claim a great deal of credit. Andri Björn Róbertsson struck Calvinistic terror into the heart as the hypocritical fundamentalist, Sandy. From the moment of saying grace, his sonorous deep bass, combined with charismatic stage presence, had one thinking of a perverted (anti-)Christ figure. His physical excitement during Blazes’ song, offered attempted release in more than one sense. Samuel Queen and Iain Milne presented a nicely ambiguous Blazes and Sandy, quite as impressive as actors as singers. Lionel Friend’s direction of the Royal Academy Sinfonia was quite beyond reproach; after a lacklustre showing in the first half (about which, more below), the orchestra sounded rejuvenated: precise, sardonic, and at times overpowering. The knife-edge balance between fatalism and human agency on stage was replicated, indeed engendered, in the pit. Quite outstanding!

What a difference a conductor makes, for Iain Ledingham’s direction of the same orchestra in Dido and Aeneas had been disappointing. Adopting that strange practice of having modern strings simply eschew vibrato, as if that somehow were enough to qualify as an ‘authentic’ performance, whatever that might be, Ledingham set the tone for what was to follow in the Overture: listless, hard-driven, and with sonority redolent of a school orchestra. (It was certainly not in any sense the players’ fault, as The Lighthouse demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.) If only Friend had conducted both. Vocal performances were less impressive too, or rather they were in the title roles. After a shaky start, Sarah Shorter recovered well, but was so let down by Ledingham’s conducting that it was difficult to reach any proper judgement. Samuel Pantcheff sounded out of sorts as Aeneas; maybe he was under the weather. Not for the first time, though, Sónia Grané shone, this time as a mellifluous Belinda. Rozanna Madylus made for a nicely malign Sorceress, ably supported by weirdly snarling witches, Tereza Gevorgyan and Irina Loskova. Ross Scanlon almost threatened to steal the show as a wickedly camp Sailor.

Ramster’s staging of Purcell’s masterpiece presented a similar meeting between camp and stylisation, perhaps strongest in the choreographed dances. Maybe that match was an expression of his ideas concerning Fate; it would make a good deal of ‘Baroque’ sense on paper. However, I could not help but agree with my companion’s observation when, slightly ruing her inability to watch a Eurovision semi-final, she said that it was actually all to be seen here. Certainly the strange portrayal of the underwear-flashing witches did not seem so very distant from what one might have imagined unfolding in Malmö at the same time. Despite some fine offstage choral singing, I felt strangely unmoved by what should be one of the most tragic of all operatic final scenes. (‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint-pot’, was Raymond Leppard’s wonderful description of the opera.) No matter: it would have been worth travelling a long way for a performance such as we heard of The Lighthouse.