Baroque operas often don’t fit conveniently into a conventional mid-week evening’s entertainment in provincial theatres. Often they’re just too long – a problem that English Touring Opera imaginatively solved last year when they split Handel’s Giulio Cesare into two evenings. This year, ETO has tackled the other end of the scale with Purcell’s miniature Dido and Aeneas... which comes in at just 50 minutes. ETO set it in a shadowy Jacobean world that blurs the boundaries between waking and dreaming, and preface it with music by two Italian composers that also trod fine lines between day and night, and between body and mind. A little known and early example of oratorio, Carissimi’s Jonas and the startlingly sensual music of Carlo Gesualdo promised to be an intriguing prelude to Dido and Aeneas, but sadly these two first half creations failed to catch light.

Carissimi is a missing-link composer. He turned down an invitation to succeed Monteverdi at St Mark’s, and his pupils included Alessandro Scarlatti and Charpentier, and conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny speculates in his programme notes that Purcell may have encountered Carissimi’s music. Jonas is a small-scale oratorio written for Rome, and contains some attractive music – a lively storm scene was played with great force and colour by the Old Street Band, Jorge Navarro-Colorado’s Jonah sings an expressive lament from the whale’s belly and the piece closes with the people of Ninevah singing a solemn hymn of repentance, delivered with sincerity by the (eight) singers. It could have stood quite nicely as a concert piece, but director Bernadette Iglich’s attempt to turn it into a piece of theatre only distracted from the drama that was already built into the music: dressed in black and grey, the singers drifted around a black polished marble set interacting randomly with each other, and in trying impose some sense on it, I found myself unable to pay enough attention to the music.

There was mercifully less movement in ETO’s presentation of madrigals and Tenebrae motets by Carlos Gesualdo and the black marble set was gloriously arrayed with large banks of candles and mirrors, the glittering, flickering light making a fine setting for the ambiguities of Gesualdo’s life and music, although the conception was better than reality as there were some blue lights in the wings that reflected unpleasantly off the mirrors and straight into my eyes. The music didn’t quite live up to its promise. The singers were mostly accompanied by strings that thickened and sweetened the texture which made for a sumptuous palette of sound but the famous biting dissonances of Gesualdo’s harmonies were softened, and the madrigals lost their raw intimacy. The music was interspersed with readings of poetry and of extracts from Gesualdo’s life – all extremely well delivered by the cast – which raised uncomfortable questions about the relationship between the carnal and spiritual that matched the ambiguities of Gesualdo’s music. John Donne’s The Expiration linking a lover’s parting with death was a particularly good choice, foreshadowing Dido’s dismissal of Aeneas. I very wanted to like what ETO was doing here, but the weak presentation of the music dampened the effect of the provocative juxtapositions in this production.

It was left to Dido and Aeneas to rescue what was becoming a disappointing evening and here ETO returned to fine form. The overture and opening scenes fizzed with urgency, Sky Ingram’s Dido a fragile bundle of anxieties who was only held together by the brisk no-nonsense attitude of Susanna Fairbairn’s vivacious Belinda. The action is set entirely amongst the dusty wreckage of a Jacobean room; the outdoor hunting scene is suggested only by a light shining on a pastoral painting. In such a dark and claustrophobic environment, it’s easy to be drawn into Dido’s madness. The Sorceress and her entourage heightened the nightmarish atmosphere, with an extra jolt when the long-haired, androgynous figure began to sing and I realised with a frisson of shock that she’s a bass (Frederick Long) – sometimes it pays not to look too closely at the cast list in advance!

Librettist Nahum Tate doesn’t give much time for character development, but Ingram made the most of every moment on stage to give us a fiercely concentrated and intense Dido, so that her self-destructive climax is entirely convincing. In contrast, Nicholas Mogg was a playful Aeneas who doesn’t seem to understand what he has unleashed and can calmly walk away. Ingram turned Dido’s final lament into a piece of self-obsessed introspection, with none of the defiance that we usually get on “remember me”. It was a raw and moving performance that exposed Dido’s suicide as a pointless act, the serene playing out of the ground bass over her brutal death agonies serving a reminder that actually, life does go on.