An outing to the handsome Romanesque-revival church in Wilton, Wiltshire for a performance of Dido and Aeneas by Hurn Court Opera provided food for thought. Established in 2017, this Dorset-based enterprise enjoys an exciting mix of rising talent – singers mostly in their final stages of Conservatoire training – and an experienced creative team providing professional direction. Achievements so far include critically acclaimed productions of Die Zauberflöteand Acis and Galatea, along with three competitions that have produced a wealth of talented singers, some of whom are already making their mark on the operatic stage.
Purcell’s opera is now so firmly embedded in the repertoire that each generation of directors feels impelled to bring forward new musicological research or their own interpretive ideas. This production, directed by Joy Atkinson, focussed on the latter with a particular emphasis on choreography, courtesy of former Principal of the Royal Ballet Zenaida Janowsky. As Movement Director, she aimed to augment the emotional and expressive impact of a work already rich in dramatic intensity. In the stylised movements of the cast, variously required to hurl white sheets to convey a raging sea or fashion a shroud, there was often too much to catch the eye. ‘Less is more’ would have reaped dividends: there was rarely a musical passage or dance number that escaped some collaborative gesture of a hand wielding a sheet or stick. That said, the black petals thrown like confetti at the end, hinting at the thwarted wedding between Dido and Aeneas, was an inspired stroke of imagination.
Antiquity was smartly realised by Sue Grove’s oriental black and white robes, based on traditional costumes associated with the ancient Chinese Hanfu dynasty. This chimed in neatly with an operatic narrative based on the founding of Carthage in 814 BC and drawn from Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. No less effective were the simple mast and sail rising from the church’s pulpit. Chancel and central aisle provided performance spaces for the main cast, while the chorus largely sang from behind the audience, a position that somewhat nullified their varied role as courtiers, sailors and witches. Occupying a side aisle were the string players, led from the harpsichord by HCO Artistic Director, Lynton Atkinson who mostly secured unanimity of ensemble with his scattered forces.
Less successful was the quality of diction from the singers whose developing voices, not lacking in substance or control, did not consistently project down the nave with necessary clarity. An opera sung in English to an English audience should not need surtitles, but anyone unfamiliar with this portrait of love and duty may have been disappointed. Freshness of musical expression does not compensate for indistinct enunciation. It did not help that the opening entreaty of Natasha Page’s gleaming Belinda to Angharad Rowlands’ regal Dido was mostly lost as she sung with her back to the audience. Rowlands’ closing lament may have lacked that special stillness required for this scene, but her velvety tone and vulnerability were both gratifying. Persistent choreography meant it was difficult to tell whether Rowlands (twice turning away from the audience) was a victim of personal or political manipulation. Theo Perry as Aeneas was a noble suitor with a degree of vocal authority and his Act III dilemma was well handled.
Countertenor Hamish McLaren was an impressive Sorcerer, admirably scaling the heights of a role originally conceived for a young woman. Supporting him were Olivia Bell and Lily Mo Browne, two well-matched witches who relished their tricky duet. Elsewhere, Cassandra Dalby was an imperious Spirit, Eleanor Rosser-Smith a mellifluous Second Woman and James Micklethwaite (standing in for Robert Forrest) an assured Sailor.
This performance was a superb opportunity for young singers to develop their craft. In time they will acquire clearer diction and more distinctive characterisations. But given the disruption of Covid 19, still casting its shadow over arts activities, it is a delight that Hurn Court Opera has returned.
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Angharad Rowlands, Aeneas – Theo Perry, Belinda – Natasha Page, Sorcerer – Hamish McLaren, First Witch – Olivia Bell, Second Witch – Lily Mo Browne, Second Woman – Eleanor Rosser-Smyth, Sailor – James Micklethwaite, Director – Joy Robinson, Movement Director – Zenaida Janowsky, Designer – Michael Hart, Costume Designer – Sue Grove, Musical Director – Lynton Atkinson.
Wilton Parish Church, Wiltshire; Friday 3rd September 2021.
ABOVE: Angharad Rowlands as Dido (centre) with Hurn Court Opera.