Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Graham foregrounded Aeneas’ and Dido’s obvious physical passion as the
Trojan Prince tussled with a vicious Sorcerer – a devil in a sharp grey
suit who wooed wickedly and sought to win the Queen of Carthage for
himself. The Sailor’s song – sung with delightful indelicacy by a swarthy
Alun Butler – was a riotous celebration of imminent departure, goading the
tinsel-bedecked Chorus to rowdily anticipate their arrival in the Italian
capital: “Rome is Home” screeched the lofted banner.

Any doubts that Dido may have had about her fate would quickly have been
dispelled from the start, by the sinister Spirits clad in silver-grey
smocks who squatted on the floor around the Queen’s prone body, scribbling
prophetic graffiti: “You are going to die”, “The Queen of Carthage is
dead”, “Blood”, “Betray”, read the ominous chalk jottings, the twirling
white script forming an ever-increasing spidery web on the black floor as
the evening progressed. Graham suggests that the ominous words are no
Delphic divination but rather the outer projection of Dido’s own, sometimes
suppressed, consciousness, when she explains, ‘Our production is inspired
by these words from the libretto, “Great minds against themselves conspire,
and shun the cure they most desire”. The stage is Dido’s mindscape. We see
everything as a manifestation of her thoughts.’

And so, Dido’s depression and inner unrest at the start of the opera is
projected through the storm with which we begin and which shipwrecks Aeneas
and his people as they flee from Troy, after Jupiter’s commands to the
Trojan Prince have boomed electronically and rather ear-splittingly across
and around the Albany’s round theatre-space, sending the Trojans on their
fateful journey to Rome. Elliot Griggs’ lighting conjured thunder and
tempest, as the singers of Blackheath Halls Opera Chorus floundered
noisily, desperately seeking the safety of the Carthaginian shore. The
Choruses generally may not have been ‘crisp’ but they were hearty,
well-tuned, and the words were clear.

Founded in 2007, this year BHCO has been forced to decamp from its familiar
home – the Blackheath Halls are currently undergoing a £3 million
refurbishment – to The Albany Theatre in nearby Deptford. The
theatre-in-the-round, skirted by a narrow circle of seats at ground level
and in the balcony, proved eminently suitable for Graham’s concept,
providing a large space across with the chorus could present the opera
through physical and visual gestures as much as through song and music.

And, the physical movement was energetic, noisy, and sometimes a little
chaotic, as the Chorus gossiped and laughed, whooped and stamped –
sometimes obliterating the buoyant dances which conductor Lee Reynolds was
inspiring from the excellent small instrumental ensemble – and carried in
and assembled the constituents parts of a banqueting table. But, the spirit
was one of vigour and life. The community chorus ran energetically about
the auditorium and up into the balcony, peering at the action from the
gallery – and occasionally blocking the audience sight-lines! – as Graham
sought to use every inch of the available space.

The professional cast were excellent, and it must have been inspiring for
both the Conservatoire singers and the members of the community to sing
alongside them. German mezzo-soprano Idunnu M¸nch was the eponymous Queen,
making her UK premiere after several years at Oper Stuttgart. M¸nch has a
lovely rich voice, just perfect for passionate Queen of Graham’s
conception; at first, I feared that she might misjudge the venue – her
voice is large and she employed a very full vibrato in her first aria of
despair, ‘Ah Belinda, I am prest with torment’, but she quickly found the
measure of the acoustic and portrayed the Queen as a very ‘real’ woman,
using every colour and nuance to win our sympathy. I’m not sure why this
Dido seemed so shocked by her profusely bleeding wound given that it is
self-inflicted, but M¸nch carried off Dido’s moments of delight and
distress with equal dramatic conviction. ‘When I am laid in earth’ was
truly touching, and the apparent resurrection of Dido’s spirit, as her
prone body was strewn with red poppy petals by the children of the Chorus,
was consoling.

Marcus Farnsworth was relaxed of voice and movement as the denimed Aeneas,
though he took quite a battering from the pummelling fists of the children
furious at his betrayal. Farnsworth and M¸nch conjured some credible regal
‘chemistry’, and he conveyed Aeneas’ honest love and subsequent confusion.
Alison Rose’s lovely clean sound was a perfect complement to M¸nch, and she
made Belinda a more supportive companion to the Queen than is sometimes the
case, projecting beautifully when she sang from the balcony.

Only the descent of some wintery branches from the ceiling hinted at the
arrival of the Sorcerer’s fearful voice from aloft. There was a touch of
Britten’s Oberon when William Towers descended and set about luring the
Queen into his sensual snare, particularly when, Pied Piper-like, the
children joined his pack of witches, trailing behind their master – evil,
masked acolytes. Towers’ microphone-assisted command, in the guise of
‘Mercury’, to Aeneas, to remind him of his destiny in Rome, was strange and

The students from Trinity Laban made impressive contributions, especially
Sofia Celenza who exhibited vocal and physical poise in the role of the
Second Woman.

Graham’s Dido may not have been quite what Purcell imagined when
he conceived the opera for the genteel ladies of Josias Priest’s Chelsea
boarding school (if that was indeed where the opera was first performed),
but it was true to the work’s humanity, and performed with commitment and
not inconsiderable charm.

Claire Seymour

Blackheath Halls Opera 2018: Purcell – Dido & Aeneas

Dido – Idunnu M¸nch, Aeneas – Marcus Farnsworth, The Sorcerer – William
Towers, Belinda – Alison Rose, Second Woman – Sofia Celenza*, First Witch –
Rebecca Leggett*, Second Witch – Jennifer Mitchell*, Spirits (Guste
Sinkeviciute, Jude Smith, Laura Kislick, Leia Joyce, Stanislaw
Kochanowski-Tym, Zarofina Farodoye), Sailor – Alun Butler, Chorus leaders*
(Katy Allen, Jennifer Barwise, Emily Kirby Ashmore, Charlotte Levesley);
Director – Polly Graham, Musical Director – Lee Reynolds, Designer – April
Dalton, Lighting Designer – Elliot Griggs, Movement Director – Francesca
Mangiacasale, Blackheath Halls Opera Chorus, Blackheath Halls Orchestra,
Pupils from Charlton Park Academy, Royal Greenwich and Blackheath Halls
Youth Choir.

Albany Theatre, Deptford; Monday 16th July 2018.

* Students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

image_description=Dido and Aeneas, Blackheath Halls Community Opera
product_title=Dido and Aeneas, Blackheath Halls Community Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Marcus Farnsworth (Aeneas) and Idunnu M¸nch (Dido)

Photo credit: Robert Workman