Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a creature of its time, an opera unlike any other. First, there’s the music, which occupies that brief period between the creation of opera and the omnipresence of high Baroque style: Purcell is categorised as a Baroque composer, but a lot of the singing owes more to Renaissance polyphony. Next, there’s the peculiarly Restoration take on the story. Where Virgil’s original is focused on the glorious fate and god-given mission that await Aeneas, Nahum Tate’s libretto is entirely sympathetic to Dido, with Aeneas not driven by the gods but by a bunch of witches.

The Vache
The Vache

But for anyone who takes any delight in contrapuntal singing, last night’s performance at the newly created Vache Baroque Festival was a garden of delights. A quintet of singers – Angela Hicks, James Geidt, Esther Mallett, Sarah Anne Champion and Rory Carver – blended their voices deliciously in the cool autumnal evening, interweaving with a string quartet and the continuo of lutenist Alex McCartney and music director Jonathan Darbourne.

The festival is the creation of Darbourne and British-Russian soprano Betty Makharinsky, who takes on the role of Dido’s confidante Belinda as well as joining in the ensemble numbers. The Vache, owned by the Makharinsky family, is an estate whose history dates back to Purcell’s time. English country house opera is blessed with many beautiful venues, but the parkland that surrounds the Vache is spectacular even in such exalted company, with its laden orchard and variety of ancient trees. The setting, by director Thomas Guthrie and designer Ruth Paton, is a model of how to be effective with simplicity and economy of means: simple reversible waistcoats allow the cast to change from sorcerer and acolytes to Dido’s courtiers; red hats and drunken swaggers morph them into Aeneas’s sailors. Interludes are lit up by a pair of dancers, Laura Braid and Ajani Johnson-Goffe, who were thrilling to watch, throwing everything into Ukweli Roach’s multi-genre, multi-era choreography and nailing their moves with rare precision.

Katie Bray sang an excellent Dido, both regal and tragic: two brief rain delays didn’t seem to put her off her stride and she delivered an elegiac, carefully poised “When I am laid in Earth”. Makharinsky provided excellent support, with lovely line and timbre and good intelligibility, albeit with a distinctly Russian accent. Jolyon Loy’s Aeneas was less successful, unable to overcome the difficulties of a somewhat thankless role since the Trojan prince is portrayed as a distinctly unheroic hero. Geidt was the pick of the supporting singers, entertaining us richly as the wicked Sorcerer at the same time as allowing us to appreciate the quality of his strong, flexible bass-baritone. Rory Carver brought the house down as the archetypal drunken sailor, well supported by his colleagues in a number that owes more to Purcell’s tavern catches than to any formal operatic tradition.

I’m predisposed to adore Purcell’s music and it was a true treat to hear it performed by a young cast with such verve, especially in such glorious outdoor surroundings. I very much wish this new festival well for years to come.

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