“Thank you for having the courage to come and support us.” The opening night of a new opera is full of exciting buzz at any time, but when the evening starts with director Frederic Wake-Walker thanking the audience at the Barbican for being brave just to be there, there was a sharpening of the anticipation. For most people at the Barbican, on and off stage, Dido’s Ghost by Errollyn Wallen was the first live performance in fifteen months, a heightened experience and one that will be, like Dido, remembered.

Isabelle Peters (Dido)
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Wallen explains that she and librettist Wesley Stace have spent the past eighteen months exploring what happened after Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas ended “shaking the dead awake until they revealed their secrets”. The result is a dramatic and thrilling work which vividly sets the scene as Dido’s sister, Anna is discovered half-drowned on the shore of Aeneas’ new kingdom. Purcell’s work is performed as a memory masque, not quite bookended by the new work as the ghosts take over and the operas collide at the end with an extraordinary and unexpected twist.

Dido's Ghost at the Barbican
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In this semi-staged concert performance, John Butt conducted the Dunedin Consort and a dozen chorus. Purcell is the Baroque band’s daily bread, but nestling in amongst the period instruments were a bass guitar and drum kit with extra percussion. A storm heralds Anna’s arrival with drums and soft electric bass, Aeneas intrigued by the stranger with a familiar look. Aeneas’ wife, Lavinia, remembers the Trojan’s black ships and is deeply suspicious of the girl from “widow city”. The excellent chorus, who have a significant role in both ancient and modern works, give Anna a menacing welcome. Over cello arpeggios, the chorus beg Aeneas to tell the story of his trip to see Dido in Hades, who explains that the Gods caused a rift between them. Wallen’s music ranges from Stravinsky to romantic influences, but noisy atonal passages capture the dramatic personalities, especially Allison Cook’s strident Lavinia often in a white heat of warring rage. When Anna presents a locket of Dido’s hair she cut from her dying sister to Aeneas, the gauntlet is thrown down.

Isabelle Peters (Dido) and Nardus Williams (Belinda)
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Purcell’s opera appears as a masque, Wake-Walker giving each character a white piece of material to wear from times past. Nardus Williams, in an oversized ruff, was graceful as Belinda, her lovely ornaments and eloquent tones soothing the drama, synchronising arm gestures with Isabelle Peters, who grew into her role as Dido as the performance progressed. Henry Waddington was a little too deep in his boots as the Sorcerer, but Lucy Goddard and Judy Louie Brown, stepping out of the chorus, had fun with the witches. The Dunediners contrasted melancholy with the stately superbly, but I was hoping for slightly more spritely wildness in the dances and mischief with the vaulted cell echoes.

Most exciting was the sudden switch from the Purcell when the witches proclaim the flaming of Carthage as Dido sleeps on a sofa, creepily overlooked by Allison Cook as the Spirit in sinister black and white striped make-up. Anna leaps up to a jolt of percussion, recalling her sister had appeared to her in a dream, the bass guitar setting up a lively riff as the music suddenly turns filmic and bluesy, offering Isabelle Peters a groovily dramatic tour de force remembering Dido’s urgent advice to flee the city. She is a singer to watch.   

Matthew Brook (Aeneas)
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Aeneas’ son Ascanius was strongly sung by David Lee, but the focus was on Matthew Brook’s Aeneas, his firm baritone successfully setting the path for Rome’s foundation but now completely haunted by regret of a lost love and the shame of his behaviour. Anna flees to the river, and Dido’s ghost bargains with Aeneas to give her safe passage in return for the lifting of her curse on the Trojans. Phrases from Dido’s Lament were scattered, but in the end it was Aeneas who got the aria, sung movingly as a broken man, a touch of falsetto here and there, Dido’s ghost and Anna both gone. As the chorus finished “With drooping wings”, Brook slowly wrapped himself in a fishing net, surrendering himself to the river.

Wallen shook things up at the 2020 Last Night of the Proms, and Dido’s Ghost certainly threw new light on Purcell. While it was intriguing to see a Baroque band embracing modern styles, it was the intense commitment of the singers which made this dramatic work so compelling. It was a true delight to see the mixture of emotions on the faces at curtain call, Brook’s fishing net mysteriously still attached. Worth catching at further performances at the Buxton and Edinburgh festivals.

This performance was reviewed from the Barbican's live video stream