Pinchgut Opera 2024 Review: Dido & Aeneas

By Gordon Williams
(Photo Credit: Cassandra Hannagan)

Audience-members arriving at Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall for Pinchgut Opera’s latest production, Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas,” walked in on a boxed theatrical space in which ensemble-members crossed and re-crossed the stage folding linen.

While some audience-members were to be heard wondering what the folding signified, the repeated activity, minutes before the opera started, could be seen as tying-in with the idea of creating a ritual activity for this re-telling of the ancient story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, who despaired and suicided when her Trojan lover Aeneas sailed away from her embrace to fulfil his destiny as founder of Rome.

In fact, one of the plusses of director Lucy Clements‘ production was the combination of ritual sense with a degree of theatricality such as the Recital Hall might not have been purpose-built for. This ritual sense amplified the idea that we were being exposed to an account of a long-ago event that has seared our collective consciousness.

Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate based their short opera on Book IV of the Latin poet Virgil’s epic “Aeneid.” Perhaps few people these days know much beyond the bare bones of this story. But a prologue by Australian playwright Kate Mulvany nicely fleshed out background about Dido, founder of a great empire in her own right, and gave us rhyming (and half-rhyming) quatrains that enhanced the ritual sense in – it seemed – an antique-sounding “sprung rhythm.”

Assigning the prologue to Australian tenor, Kanen Breen, who would later play the Sorceress was a canny way to point out the role of fate in Dido’s tragedy. It is the Sorceress who sends a witch disguised as the god Mercury to remind the smitten Aeneas of his destiny and to discontinue the dalliance with Dido. Breen’s choreographed movements – at times a sort of writhing – amplified the sense of the Sorceress’ supernatural status, if perhaps slightly obscuring the verse more than a stand-and-deliver presentation from the plot’s Prime Mover might have done.

But the whole production was a nice balance between ritual and energetic theatrical and particularly musical detail.

While the Orchestra of the Antipodes, Pinchgut Opera’s regular instrumental ensemble, played effective, extemporized atonal flourishes to punctuate the Sorceress’ prologue, conductor Erin Helyard elicited great and lively detail from Purcell’s actual score. This was apparent from the particularly swift and exhilarating “quick” of the overture, and the elaborate ornamentation of the chaconne repetitions in “Ah, Belinda, I am press’d / With torment not to be confess’d”, Dido’s admission (and harbinger of her later “When I am in laid in earth”) to her maid Belinda that she cannot “shake the cloud” of her obsession for Aeneas. Helyard’s ornate harpsichord continued to suggested an undertow of emotions to Valda Wilson’s voicing of Dido’s passions.

Purcell’s 1689 opera is brief (around an hour in length) but was here fleshed out by Helyard and his colleague, theorbo player and baroque guitarist Simon Martyn-Ellis, with dances from others of Purcell’s works. Closing Act two as the spell begins to work with a reflective sarabande-like dance was particularly moving.

As mentioned above, Mulvany’s prologue was delivered by Kanen Breen in his guise as the Sorceress. Breen came into his own in Act two, where the Sorceress engineers the events that will drive Aeneas away. Breen is almost a go-to artist for these sorts of character roles (as witness his Platée in 2021) and his inventive glissandi and ornate dynamics here actually pointed up the text, the quickly swelling crescendo and decrescendo on the line, “The Queen of Carthage Whom We Hate,” for example, boldly standing out and providing riveting motivation for a malevolence that might otherwise be incomprehensible.

But this production with its awareness of the centuries-old resonance of this tale was no monolith. There was even humor in tenor Louis Hurley and his three colleagues’ depiction of the sailors who will conduct Aeneas away, what with their seafarers’ West Country accents. And additional dance movements, choreographed by Shannon Burns, raised the pure entertainment value.

Australian soprano Valda Wilson was particularly affecting in the great aria which is almost synonymous with the operatic Dido “When I am laid in earth” with her lilting (life-leaving) triplets (“may my wrongs create / No trouble in thy breast”) and her haunting appeals to “Remember me.”

Baritone David Greco gave us a firm, decisive Aeneas, and soprano Sara Macliver as Belinda complemented Valda Wilson’s performance even down to sympathetically matching Dido’s gestures.

One might say that one of the Pinchgut team’s best musical decisions in this production concerned the size of the chorus – no heavy commentary here but an ensemble comprising those who had played some of the smaller roles (witches, sailors, courtiers…) and nimble enough (only eight of them) to take part in the action and dancing. Their final chorus was less editorial commentary on Dido’s death than participation in the grief, with literally breathtaking and heartbreaking detail such as the incredibly lengthy pauses in the final line, “Keep here your watch [over her] and never…never…part.”

Purcell’s 1689 opera “Dido and Aeneas” may be brief but it is a succinct portrayal of a tragic moment in our shared heritage (even if most people only remember the names of Dido and Aeneas as yet another pair of star-crossed lovers) and in the hands of Helyard, Clements, Burns and designers Jeremy Allen and Morgan Moroney was a full theatrical experience at that.


ReviewsStage Reviews