Ushered into the atmospheric nave of St Peter’s Chapel, the performance of Dido and Aeneas begins the moment the door is opened. Dry ice creeps around the edge of the door, catching in the light as the orchestra launch into the jaunting overture.
The setting is breath-taking. As the houselights descend, the stained glass window becomes back-lit, casting rays of saintly light upon the stage as we are introduced to the chorus and the court of Carthage and Belinda’s song of optimism. One struggles to imagine a more apt place to stage Purcell’s baroque masterpiece than the chapel of St Peter’s College. First performed in a girls’ school in 1689, the chapel of the college once served a similar institution In this sense, the opera has returned to its roots. Indeed, impressive quality performance when singing was emphasised as a key element of the original curriculum at the school. It is hard to comment on the Orchestra led by John Warner, as I can find no fault in the sextet – it was delightful to hear a harpsichord brought to life in such an atmospheric setting.
Vocally, it is hard to find fault. Dido’s (Rachel Coll) opening aura is refined to a sublime lament. She quite simply lives the role, eyes glistening with tears, brow furrowed in intense internal conflict. Her performance is the highlight of the show, and the production team must be commended on such a successful casting. Similarly, Tom Dixon’s depiction of the Sorcerer deserves high commendation. His counter-tenor voice is simply flawless.
The performance of the witches was another strength of the show. Rory Green’s mannerisms are perfectly snivelling as he and Lila Chrisp approve their master’s plan for Dido’s downfall. They are suitably scary, bedecked in white face-paint and strong black eyebrows, but maintain a certain comical aspect. The bearded and cross-dressed appearances of the male witches remind one of Macbeth’s weird sisters and maintains a healthy aspect of comedy in the midst of the tragic cycle.
Similarly, the chorus provides the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. Their reactions to the events unfurling around them compliment, but do not detract. Bearing paper props, they demonstrated the ever fragile vanity of the Dido’s character. Their performance as drunken sailors was a welcome comical reprieve f before the tragic pathos of Act III gripped the audience.
My only criticism of the production comes in Act III. Dido and Aeneas’s passionate parting lacked force and conviction, but is nothing that cannot be remedied in subsequent performances. The production quickly picked up again for Dido’s heartbreaking demise. The audience is captivated as she removes her symbols of majesty and is surrounded by the chorus bearing lit lanterns. The setting of the chapel and her white night-gown gives the feeling of a convict awaiting execution upon Tower Hill. As her final lament rises from her lips, we are gripped. The closing epilogue of the chorus huddled around her lifeless body is the perfect close to the production. As Aeneas rejoins the cast, one is reminded of his final encounter with Dido in Virgil’s underworld – able to see her, but speak no more. His guilt lingers perpetually, and so will the immense success of this performance.