DEBORAH Warner’s tenure at Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio continues with the exciting introduction of opera to the intimate space … and what better start than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Not many people study the classics in school these days, so the background to the story that has given music the timeless hit Dido’s Lament can be lost. In this production, directed by Isabelle Kettle, the audience not only gets an Ustinov stage full of varying levels and steps, but an on-stage, shoeless, five piece ensemble led by musical director Michael Papadopoulos at the harpsichord, and a (literally) visceral view of divination by haruspicina – with pheasants prayed in aid.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her lover, the Trojan prince Aeneas, are doomed – he by the gods to leave her and proceed to found his own dynasty, she to be left and to die after finding true love. In Purcell’s version, first seen in 1689, she is aided by her sister Belinda, cursed by a sorceress and her witches and taunted by drunken sailors before all join together in the unforgettable final aria, taken at a mesmerisingly slow pace which adds to both its beauty and its intensity.
The hour-long evening begins with Dido under a gauze, as the voice of Anne-Marie Duff reads Sylvia Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song.
New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa brings a Dido whose increasing helplessness in the face of a love she knows to be doomed descends into madness. Poor Dominic Bowe is the hapless anti-hero Aeneas, a man who can truly blame the will of the gods for his immediate desertion of his lover.
Perhaps the outstanding performance of the production comes from Ella Taylor, whose beautiful voice and multi-faceted characterisations of both Belinda and the Second Witch add to the momentum and poignancy of the story.
The spare setting concentrates the story and proves the Ustinov acoustic to be ideal for chamber opera, as it was for the danced Minotaur and Christine Rice’s performance of Britten’s Phaedra, earlier in the season.
When I Am Laid in Earth is a real ear-worm of an aria, and you won’t hear a more intensely felt version than here.
Photographs by Tristram Kenton