The State Opera of South Australia ventured to Adelaide’s trendy “Plant 4” complex to mount a clever production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the round – the oldest opera in the English language being performed in a trendy venue. When you think of it, both Dido and Aeneas are refugees – she, fleeing Phoenicia after her brother had murdered her husband, has established a new city in Carthage; and Aeneas fleeing Troy, sailing for Italy but blown off course and shipwrecked at Carthage – in a part of the Mediterranean still sadly abounding in refugees. Director Nicholas Cannon, who is reviving and revamping a production he first staged in Adelaide two years ago, has highlighted this theme by dressing the chorus, members of the Elder Conservatorium of Music, as a bedraggled collection of persons fleeing with such haste they were still wearing the attire of their various professions.

Kate Louise Macfarlane (Belinda), Bethany Hill (Dido) and Raphael Wong (Aeneas)
© Bernard Hull Photography

Bethany Hill, reviving the role Dido, was impressive throughout, a confident, powerful soprano dressed in jeans, packing a revolver in a holster strapped to her thigh. She was complemented by coloratura soprano Kate Louise Macfarlane’s persuasive Belinda, her sister and confidante, who right from the start. Her “A tale so strong and full of woe” which, according to the colourful image “might melt the rocks”, demonstrated a singer of great richness and depth.

Outstanding too was the rich baritone of Raphael Wong, the dutiful and loving Aeneas. He and Hill blended beautifully together, from their initial tender, blossoming love through to their stormy, ugly break up, as Aeneas obeying – he believed – the call of the gods, sails off to found a new Troy in Italy, and Dido, despairing of her loss, moping off stage to shoot herself. (Thus the first English opera performed set a pattern of operas concluding with the death of the leading lady.) A red banner, unfurled by the chorus, symbolised the courtship and growing love between the two, as Dido sensuously wrapped it around herself, then also around Aeneas, binding the two closer together, finally ending in a passionate embrace and intimate dancing. Hand in hand, they walked off the stage to a rousing “Go revel, ye Cupids, the day is your own” from the joyful chorus, with enthusiastic cheering and clapping. Not only could Wong sing, but his acting and expressions were impressive, especially the beatific smile of a man in love. At the opera’s conclusion this red banner (now representing blood rather than passion) was placed coffin-like alongside what had been Dido’s throne, a haunting reminder of her off-stage death.

Bethany Hill (Dido) and University of Adelaide Elder Conservatorium of Music Chorus
© Bernard Hull Photography

Sara Lambert’s cameo role as the second woman was also strong. She was dressed in pink, a baby in a low hanging baby-carrier strapped over her shoulder, one of the refugees who had hurriedly fled. Her voice was pleasant and true, with excellent phrasing, yet with all that, it was not easy to distinguish the words she sang.

Dressed uniquely as a mysterious sorceress, Elizabeth Campbell, also reviving the role from 2016, was outstanding. Campbell’s remarkably rich mezzo-soprano presence was commanding. As she embraced the stage, lightly touching chorus members, she froze them like stones, bidding them respond to her orders as if hypnotised. It was the same chorus, still in their workday costumes, yet as sorcerer’s servants they managed a sharper edge to their singing. It was subtle yet so effective.

This chorus brought an extra dimension to the performance. Their singing was rich, strong and appealing, radiating a joyful, enthusiastic energy. And they were not confined to the stage. Mingling with the audience, harmonising from the mezzanine, providing the props, simple effects like banners from the balcony for the sorcerers’ cave (or was it Carthage’s harbour), and pot plants on tables for Act 2’s beautiful grove. All through they seemed to be having a great time, thoroughly enjoying themselves. Their energy was remarkable, most evident when in sailor mode they embraced “Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing” as if leaving Carthage was the best decision they had ever made.

The Elder Conservatorium Orchestra (one flute among the strings) under the control of internationally acclaimed energetic Luke Dollman’s energetic conducting, were another group who seemed delighted to be playing, and gave of their best. Lighting productions performed in the round calls for careful planning, and Wesley Hiscock did this well. Especially dramatic was his decision to keep a spot brightly focussed on the red cloth signifying Dido’s death as the opera concluded. Singing the small roles of the witches, Mercury and the sailor were unnamed members of the chorus. Especially inspiring, I thought, was the role of the sailor.

An enjoyable night in a novel venue.