Operatic double bills promise variety, and from a queen fatally obsessed with her Trojan warrior to a soldier’s wife, so determined to try out life as a man that she releases her breasts as balloons and grows a beard (causing a monumental fuss), we were certainly not disappointed. The melancholy tale of Dido in Ancient Carthage paired with a short, deliciously bonkers French absurdist opera added up to a fascinating experience.

Eirlys Myfanwy Davies (Dido) and Victoria Stevens (Belinda) © KK Dundas
Eirlys Myfanwy Davies (Dido) and Victoria Stevens (Belinda)
© KK Dundas

The wonderful Opera Project continues at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where operas are presented in a studio, with minimal sets but excitingly close to the audience. For Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the tiny period orchestra was placed at the back of the space and director Mark Hathaway sensibly had the chorus tucked in behind them, allowing principals and dancers to convey the action.

This opera hinges round Dido, and Eirlys Myfanwy Davies conveyed a queen proud of the successful city she founded, yet lovestruck by the attractive sailor whose fleet has been blown into town by a storm. As she cast off her ring of chastity, her fate was sealed by a Sorceress and witches, plotting Carthage’s downfall and conjuring Mercury to lure Aeneas away to Italy. Supporting parts were well sung, with Victoria Stevens a bright Belinda, Jane Monari a frightening bald headed sorceress and Euros Campbell a particularly strong Aeneas. The music ranges from mournful to brilliant dance, and the addition of seven dancers added welcome fluidity and movement. It is a delicate opera in the main and choreographer Kally Lloyd Jones produced subtle movements for her performers with added twists of hornpipe for departing sailors, and some cleverly elegant set pieces. A theorbo, Baroque guitar, harpsichord, strings and the eight strong chorus were under the direction of Timothy Dean, all working hard to conjure authentic period sounds.

Jane Monari (Sorceress) © KK Dundas
Jane Monari (Sorceress)
© KK Dundas

Everyone has favourite moments from this opera, and if Dido’s “Ah Belinda” with its repeated cello ground bass throughout was particularly moving, then her “When I am Laid in Earth” was shattering. Hathaway had Dido on a deathbed for this final aria, but it was the devastating effect of Dido’s death on her sister Belinda who had to be gently led away by the second woman as the rose petals fell from the sky which perhaps moved us even more.

Guillaume Apollinaire was an absurdist playright, poet and art critic. He wrote his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias towards the end of the First World War, but died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Francis Poulenc set many of his songs, and eventually this opera in 1947, again appropriate after the end of the Second World War. As an opener, and to set the scene for the fictional French town of Zanzibar, Poulenc’s setting of Apollinaire’s poem Bleuet was movingly sung by Matthew Thomas Morgan. Bleuet is a term for a French soldier in blue uniform, but also the blue cornflowers often found on battlefields, so the song poignantly juxtaposed life and death, and then introduced us to the zany characters of Zanzibar.

A successful ‘theatre of the absurd’ piece has to get the fine balance right between logical argument and the wildly irrational without becoming so stupid that the audience disengages. Director Mark Hathaway managed to bring this difficult piece off successfully through some tremendous ensemble work from the cast of twelve colourful characters and a handful of dancers.

Our tale has soldier’s wife Thérèse declaring herself a feminist, refusing to serve her husband, Le Mari, bacon, releasing her balloon breasts which she bursts with a cigar and growing a huge beard. She dresses her husband in woman’s clothes and ties him up before leaving as Tirésias to try her hand at the ‘male’ professions of medicine and law as the women cry “No more children”. There is a huge fuss and a procession of unlikely characters: Presto and Lacouf, who fight a duel to death with loaves of bread because they can’t decide if they are in Paris or Zanzibar and Le Gendarme who mistakes the trussed up Le Mari as a woman and makes lecherous advances. Meanwhile, Le Mari has discovered how to make 40,049 babies by himself in a day causing a local food shortage. A fortune-teller turns up predicting riches for Le Mari and poverty for Le Gendarme, whom she strangles and reveals herself as Thérèse, ready to urge the people of Zanzibar to make babies again and repopulate the area after the ravages of war.

Les Mamelles de Tirésias © KK Dundas
Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© KK Dundas

In a cornucopia of characters and just plain zany situations, from a mop dance, demanding babies in huge nappies and the bread loaf duel if it difficult to convey the pure fun that the opera students had with this. Euros Campbell as Le Directeur explained the story to the audience, but Barbara Cole Walton as the bold Thérèse/Tirésias and Jonathan Cooke (at this performance) as her hapless husband gave energetic central performances. It was the complete ensemble of the singers which really shone through making this opera particularly successful.

In a version for two grand pianos by Benjamin Britten for the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, pianists Marija Struckova and Michael Gajzler went at the busy score with infectious gusto, even enjoying a refreshing onstage drink between the two acts.

As the balloons made a final reappearance, and were cut free to float off through the spotlights, it was impossible not to warm to this mad piece of absurdist opera.

****1