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This was a strange evening and no mistake. Take one favourite hour-long opera, slice it up and mix with extracts from another play on the same theme, have the entire show acted out by a cast of puppets, and throw in an art installation, school of Damien Hirst. What would you call the finished product? Exactly – nobody seemed to be clear what this production was meant to be.
We know very little about the first performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (the theory that the work was written to be performed by the young women of Josias Priest’s school for girls in Chelsea has been discredited) but it seems doubtful, to say the least, that his audience circa 1690 expected to see the opera as part of a modern art installation or a puppet show. Authenticity was not the name of the game here. Rather it was a case of filling out an opera that has always seemed skimpy in its treatment of the Dido myth.
Adding extracts from Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage was not a bad idea in itself. Although a century separates Marlowe from Purcell, the extracts were well chosen to fill the gaps and deftly interleaved by Tim Carroll – too much so in the final scene, where Purcell’s flow kept getting interrupted by extra lines of dialogue. Yolanda Vasquez and Jonathan Oliver, the play’s leading couple, spoke their lines clearly. Acting as such was not required, as the puppets provided the movements. A wooden Dido might not seem likely to engage the human emotions much, but she bled very realistically after her suicide by stabbing. The strange body part exhibits, displayed in glass cases, were used to illustrate the sorceress’s hellish curses – shades of Shakespeare’s “eye of newt, and toe of frog”.
Did the opera seem greater or lesser than usual? The latter, I am inclined to think, despite the eloquence of Sarah Connolly’s Dido and Giles Underwood’s uncommonly sensitive Aeneas, heading an expressive musical performance by the Choir and Orchestra of the Enlightenment, directed by Steven Devine. This far-flung artistic concoction had its entertaining and even touching moments, but on the way out one question must have been on everybody’s lips: “Why?”