Perhaps because it is so short, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is often used as a vehicle for student performances, new companies starting out, as a local entertainment and so on. Sadly, what many such ventures fail to recognise it that it is a short masterpiece, and under par performances just will not do. In my own experience, I have seen a gamut of productions, from the truly sublime to the unbelievably awful. Happily, the production considered here fell well towards the former end of the spectrum.

Bethany Hill (Dido) © Bernard Hull Photography
Bethany Hill (Dido)
© Bernard Hull Photography
This was a joint production between two fledgeling Adelaide companies, Mopoke Theatre productions which “aims to create exciting and enjoyable theatre and musical works as well as developing professional skills of performing artists”, and Ensemble Galante, “a network of performers on period instruments” which “focuses on music from the High Baroque, Galante and Classical styles of the 18th century”. The singers were mostly young Australian graduates, bolstered by the presence of distinguished mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell, who has sung everything from Serse to Fricka (in Adelaide's Ring).

The event took place in the Queen’s Theatre, which dates from 1840, early in Adelaide’s history, when it was a theatre combined with a tavern. After two years, the theatre went broke but the tavern (strangely) continued to trade. The theatre became a law court in 1843, still with attached tavern, and in 1850 it reverted to a theatre and finally closed in 1868. What remains now of the original theatre appears to be precisely nothing except rather decrepit walls and a corrugated iron roof. Obviously an intriguing setting to say the least, the space was used effectively and the acoustics were remarkably good. The audience was seated in moveable chairs on three sides of the available space, with a narrow stage against the fourth wall for the musicians, with a podium in the centre of the performing area which was flanked by a white combi-van and a vehicle trailer. The only other on-stage prop was a rusty old solid fuel stove.

Director Nicholas Cannon’s conceit was that the time of the Trojan war was not dissimilar to today, with parts of the then-known world in upheaval, the Trojans being of course refugees from the Greek sack of Troy, and Carthage being populated by a rag-tag militia and an underclass which had seen better days. Queen Dido appeared in cammo pants and army boots with a hand gun in her belt, and Belinda seemed to be some sort of military enabler. The musicians appeared well before the start, also dressed in modern casual clothes which had seen better days, and smudged with dirt or soot, and so too the chorus.

Bethany Hill (Dido) © Bernard Hull Photography
Bethany Hill (Dido)
© Bernard Hull Photography

Said musicians – the usual strings and basso continuo, with the addition of a brace of oboes, second-guessing a possible revival under Purcell – ambled onto the stage and started tuning up, which gradually morphed into a jig; they continued tuning and performing actual tunes, until the lights went down and the familiar overture then began. The playing was excellent under the leadership of well-known Baroque violinist Ben Dollman, and the oboes mostly unobtrusively adding to the colours, although sounding somewhat unexpected here and there. Samantha Cohen’s theorbo was more clearly heard than is often the case, pleasantly adding to the texture of the continuo. Some discordant music lent a demonic tone to the segue from Scene 1 to Scene 2 of Act II.

The chorus comprised the principals with four extra voices and, qua chorus, were equal to the musicians, excellently synchronised and sonorous. “To the hills and the vales” was rendered with good dynamics and an increasing tempo provided sustained interest. The acting and movement of all concerned pushed the narrative along nicely.

Dido was sung by Bethany Hill, who seems on the brink of an international career, has a clear low-ish soprano, used to good effect throughout. It must be said that she did not quite scale the heights of dramatic intensity in her final lament, but of course that bar has been set very high over the years. The fact that she was obliged to twist and turn while it was sung possibly mitigated against the kind of concentration required. Karen Fitz-Gibbon as Belinda also sounds like a serious contender for an illustrious career, with a voice of attractive purity and accuracy. As Aeneas, David Hidden gave a good account of himself, with a fine resonant baritone; he and Hill were convincing young lovers. Elizabeth Campbell brought to bear her well-earned authority and powerful voice as a suitably venomous sorceress. All the singers displayed excellent diction, and it was a delight to hear such a range of fresh young voices.

***11