Poulenc’s monodrama and Purcell’s jewel-like opera make such an obvious pair that it’s surprising no one thought of it before. Both are about the heartbreak of love, in each case written by a man but enacted by a woman. Each lasts less than an hour, but the dramaturgy and musical language are so distinctive that there’s no duplication. They dovetail perfectly, as this new production, staged by Aletta Collins and conducted by Wyn Davies, amply demonstrates: once again Opera North has showcased its resourcefulness.
The evening nevertheless turns out lopsided, and it’s Dido and Aeneas, played second, that wins hands down. Partly that’s because Purcell’s dance music plays into the hands of Collins, who is as much a choreographer as a director. But her handling of it is inspired at all levels, creating new dimensions for the piece while respecting its minimalist style and leaving the audience emotionally drained – as every performance of both these works should do.
Giles Cadle’s boudoir set, a receding black-and-white perspective, resembles a hall of mirrors – an effect intensified by multiple Dido doubles, some dancing and some singing. All – including the Sorceress (Heather Shipp, excellent), the queen’s alter ego – are red-heads in black shift or scarlet dress, the latter reinforcing Dido’s kinship with the protagonist of La Voix humaine. The message is unmistakable: even when Pamela Helen Stephen’s painfully truthful Dido kills herself at the final curtain, we know we are watching psychological drama, not romantic fiction.
La Voix humaine was designed as a star turn for Lesley Garrett, returning to staged opera after several years’ absence. She looks in remarkably good shape but the part doesn’t lie easily on her soprano. Neither vulnerable nor suicidal, Garrett’s Elle leads us through a sequence of trompe l’oeil effects that have us guessing whether the protagonist’s telephone conversation is for real – or whether Elle is merely an actor giving a virtuoso performance. Such interpretative cleverness is a betrayal of the work’s emotional integrity. Opera North ends up with a production no more involving than Joan Rodgers’s ice-cold show, staged by Deborah Warner, in the same theatre only six seasons ago.