Tate, Purcell, Stace, Wallen, after Ovid
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Opera House
July 11-17 2021, 1hr 40min
Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas (book and lyrics by Nahum Tate, otherwise mainly known for penning “While Shepherds watched”) has long been recognised as a masterpiece on the cusp of the change from masques to real opera in English.
But it’s quite short, part of the original music is lost, and no one quite knows how it was presented in its day – apart from a version at an all-girls boarding school. It does contain one utterly moving song: Dido’s Lament, as it’s often known, beginning “When I am laid in earth…”
How can we recreate it today, except by quite a lot of imaginative reconstruction and restoration, possibly inserting bits of other music by Purcell or even his contemporaries – as Jonathan Miller did at the Buxton Festival in 2008, rightly welcomed internationally?
Errollyn Wallen has come at it quite differently. With text by Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), she’s composed her own chamber opera, set some time after the Tate-Purcell snippet from Ovid’s Fasti, and taking up aspects of the classic original to ask: what happened next?
Into this she dovetails the original Dido and Aeneas, almost complete, as a “masque” staged at court by Lavinia, the second Mrs Aeneas, to recall the broken love affair that he, now king of the New Troy in Italy, can never forget (and the curse that goes with it). Dido’s lookalike sister, Anna, has turned up on his shores, and she becomes Dido, while Aeneas acts himself. Of course, nothing can possibly go wrong.
The piece was co-commissioned by BIF, premiered at the Barbican last month and is on its way to the Edinburgh Festival, among other places. It’s performed by the Dunedin Consort, superb Scottish specialists in baroque music, and directed by John Butt – so you get the Purcell score performed with scholarly authority and typical liveliness.
Wallen’s instrumentation adds modern percussion including a xylophone, with a prominent role for bass guitar. It’s an intriguing update of the textures of baroque music, where the balance of free-flowing melody and independent bass line is the key to much beauty (and never more so than in the original Dido’s Lament).
The composer intertwines her own music with Purcell’s and uses references to it: her witches’ dance has a short, pounding bass guitar riff as Anna is woken from Lavinia’s spell. Aeneas sees Anna (or is it Dido?) and the accompaniment starts the Lament, but he sings it and she adds a counter-melody. The Lament finally emerges in full from Aeneas’s lips as he prepares to end it all, and the chorus sings Purcell’s finale (with a little postlude from Wallen).
On the first night at Buxton, Isabelle Peters stepped up from the chorus to take the role of Anna/Dido, in place of the unwell Idunnu Münch. Peters, a WNO associate artist, was an outstanding Dorabella in a Royal Northern College of Music production of Cosí fan Tutte in 2016 and for those in Manchester had already made an impression as Rapunzel in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Into The Woods shortly before. She is a gifted actress as well as an excellent singer, and unhesitatingly carried all the dimensions of the part on this occasion. Jessica Gillingwater brought incisive vocal strength and presence to the role of Lavinia, and Nardus Williams found an individual characterisation of charm to Belinda, along with the richness of timbre that has already charmed opera and concert audiences widely.
Add to those the two witches’ performances from Lucy Goddard and Judy Brown of the Dunedin Consort ranks, and you have an exceptionally strong female line-up for John Butt to direct. Matthew Brooks’ Aeneas likewise sang strongly and with emotional awareness throughout, and Timothy Dickinson (Elymas) and Dunedin’s David Lee (Ascanius) were no less committed.
I found this outstanding, both as a new creative work and in the sheer quality of every element of the performance. I think it may well be remembered as one of the best things that came out of the Covid era.
Further performances on 14 and 17 July.
Ticket info here