Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is one of the most frequently performed pieces in the standard operatic repertoire; as one of the earliest English operas it has received consistent attention following the renewed interest in Baroque music, and the historically informed performance movement. Not only does it combine memorable music with Virgil’s compelling tale of doomed love, enhanced by flashes of dark humour, but it is scored for small forces making it a perfect choice for student opera companies. The Eglesfield Musical Society is no exception to this; EMS Opera disbanded in 2007 but are currently enjoying a resurrection with Dido and Aeneas. Naturally, when I attended the rehearsals for Dido I arrived with high expectations, wondering how EMS Opera were going to present a new perspective on the opera.
The director, Daisy Gibbs, is all too aware of this challenge. She says that this production hopes to “bring out something new in each character”. The narrative is propelled primarily by the interactions between the two main characters, Dido and Aeneas, with interjections from the chorus and Dido’s handmaid, Belinda. As such, “It’s easy to see the opera as a character study of Dido, but in my view it has the potential to be far more than that. The opera’s comparative brevity means it’s possible to treat it as a real ensemble piece. Each actor, as they finish a scene, will withdraw into the anonymity of the chorus and become an observer.”
The choruses take on the role of an omniscient observer throughout in the style of a Greek chorus, providing moralising statements upon the dramatic action. In rehearsal the choruses are some of the strongest moments, certainly supporting the emphasis upon the ensemble aspects of the opera. All the singers are members of prominent Oxford choirs and thus have extensive previous experience singing together as a chorus, an invaluable bonus which is evident in the unusual cohesion between the performers.
From the choruses to the solo arias, it is clear that the dramatic and visual aspects of this interpretation are as crucial as the musical. Growing out of the Italian operatic tradition with its emphasis on spectacle, Dido and Aeneas was always intended first and foremost as an entertainment. To this end, Purcell added moments of comic relief to Virgil’s tragic tale, most notably in the sailors’ and witches’ scenes. The latter, who conspire to bring about Dido’s downfall, are often portrayed in a serious fashion; not so here. Their capacity for mischief-making – “Destruction’s our delight” – is the focus, with a brilliant comic turn by the two apprentices (Sonia Jacobson and Johanna Hockman) alongside Helena Bickley’s portrayal of the sorceress. Of course, the opera’s culmination with Dido’s Lament, played by Tara Mansfield, is for many the highlight of the opera. Closing on a note of ambiguity as to whether Dido chooses to take her own life after the loss of Aeneas, this aria presents the performer with a host of interpretational challenges; I won’t spoil any surprises but based upon rehearsal the price of admission would be justified for this performance alone.
Discussing her interpretation of the score, Daisy says “I have made some controversial decisions… There’s a school of thought that says your interpretation is not valid unless it sticks rigidly to contemporary performance practice. But my feeling is that we’re just as capable of bringing something valuable to the performance as Purcell was. If you’re one of those people who likes to bring a score to concerts you’ll notice certain places where we’ve changed things, and we hope you’ll see the reasoning behind the changes – whether dramatically or musically, they make sense to us.” I thoroughly recommend attending to find out.
Dido and Aeneas will be performed by Eglesfield Music Society on Tuesday 27th November, 20:30, in Queen’s Chapel. Tickets are £6/£3; to book contact firstname.lastname@example.org.