Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is a relatively short but beautiful work. It has a splendid role for Dido, the much abused Queen of Carthage, who laments her fate almost throughout. In her opening words she speaks of languishing in Torment, being a stranger to peace and unable to even confess her troubles.
The Aix-en-Provence Festival has struck gold in its choice of South African soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong as Dido. She expresses the high griefs of Dido with surpassing vocal beauty and when she laments her fate she gives us a magnificently moving rendition.
Baritone Tobias Lee Greenhalgh plays a straight-backed Aeneas. He is dressed in khaki with high boots and he looked, I thought, like a British officer somewhere in the Empire in the good old days. His singing was good but relatively passionless. A toga may have been out of place but modern army attire did not help him. Aeneas as the founder of Rome can fall in love but he is to greater business bound and in the end he must leave Dido behind.
Soprano Sophia Burgos sang a sympathetic Belinda, Dido’s sister and friend while mezzo soprano Lucile Richardot was suitably villainous and vitriolic as the Sorceress who hates Dido and you can imagine the rest.
Dido and Aeneas has some of the most beautiful choral pieces in the repertoire and the Ensemble Pygmalion, chorus and orchestra, performed all exquisitely.
Dido and Aeneas may have been composed as a court masque that requires a great deal of dancing. That could extend the time required for a full performance. But that would also require choreography and of course a troupe of ballet dancers. The Festival chose do without that but needed to add something to make an evening of it.
The solution chosen was a new prologue consisting of a poem by Maylis de Kerangal. The poem is recited by Rokia Traoré while some women are aligned on the stage. Traoré, from Mali, represents A Woman from Cyprus, a new character added by Dramaturge Louis Geisler who sings a few verses and represents, I think, the fate of abused women. The new prologue adds some twenty minutes to the production which lasts one hour and fifteen minutes start to finish. How about another one act opera?
Dido and Aeneas is relatively static but it does have three short acts which show Dido and her train at the palace, the Sorceress and the Witches in their cave or wherever you want to put them, Aeneas and company hunting in the vales and the Sailors on the shore. The current production is done on one set representing a concrete wall that may be on the shore. Most of the production is done in gloomy lighting.
Purcell did marvels with Nahum Tate’s rhyming couplets which are a long way from Virgil’s description of the affair. Dido wants her life but not her fate to be remembered. Thanks to Virgil and Purcell, we remember both.
Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell opened on July 7 and will be performed eight times until July 23, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.