Cécile Roussat and Julien Lubek have created a huge stage production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, showing an almost maniacal attention to details, inventiveness, and all those artifices peculiar to English Baroque Theatre. The result is an interesting philological re-enactment that unfortunately does not seem to be fully engaging or to emphasise the score’s most intimate passages.

Dido’s lament at the end of Henry Purcell’s opera is probably one of the most famous arias ever. You can deeply feel and hear the discouragement and the delusion of the forsaken Queen. Shortly before, Aeneas tried to convince her of his true love and of the higher decisions that he is obliged to observe. “But Death, alas! I cannot shun, Death must come when he is gone”, Dido then says to herself. Absolutely elegiac and touching are these words of a Queen who experiences the desperation of being abandoned and is heading towards death, strongly, with dignity, but no hesitation. The Chorus thus invites the little Cupids to look after Dido’s tomb and to put roses on it: “With drooping Wings ye Cupids come, And scatter Roses on her Tomb. Soft and Gentle as her Heart, Keep here your Watch and never part”. Again, very deep and touching words, pure poetry.

The limit of this production (though musically played with sensitivity) is the little emphasis places placed on the most emotional parts. Since the very first moment, the stage was full of jugglers, acrobats, dancers, circus performers and mimes. It was a jubilant sparkling of colours, scintillating cascades, painted papier-mâché. It was not this horror vacui (visually splendid) itself that left us perplexed: Roussat and Lubek probably aimed at staging an opera as it was done in the past. It must then be considered as a work of historical reconstruction, which eventually concentrated only on this aspect. The most poignant moments floated with almost the same solemnity as all others or, on the contrary, were purely abstract and cold.

Dido’s lament showed a Dido wrapped with veils – standing for sea waves – which started to progressively submerge her. While singing, Dido had to handle this awkward material (showing some difficulty in dealing with it), struggling to fit into it and to let it cover her: all this seemed static and not really fascinating. Philological reconstructions can be useful and interesting, but are not always necessary. Sensitivity changes and develops through the centuries: what may have resounded as hilarious centuries ago does not necessarily reach the same effect today. For example, the Sorceress (here sung by tenor Carlo Allemano) appeared as a giant octopus, equipped with long plastic tentacles which vibrated and constantly swayed. This may have looked hilarious in 1600s London, but now it appears fake (it reminded me of Ursula from The Little Mermaid). Even many musical scores that were written for fortepiano, were then replaced by the piano itself, which, for example, shows more homogeneity of sounds on the keyboard. This does not imply that we should play all scores on original instruments: there is no need for that, they would just sound a bit unusual to us.

Musically speaking, conductor Federico Maria Sardelli gently led the Orchestra and the Chorus of the Teatro Regio through the lyrical softness of Purcell’s score, reaching a good balance between the singers on stage and the orchestra inside the mystic gulf. Despite the chaos raging on stage, the vocal soloists sang with dignity. Soprano Roberta Invernizzi, an experienced and accurate Baroque interpreter, was an intense and scenically convincing Dido. Benedict Nelson depicted a noble and masculine Aeneas. Roberta Mameli was an always in tune and precise Belinda. The rest of the cast and the Chorus (as always well instructed by Chorus Master Claudio Fenoglio) sang with participation and refinement. A success overall, with long applause for the entire cast, the conductor, the chorus and the orchestra.