There must have been a wry smile on the face of Philip White, Head of Opera at Royal Conservatoire Scotland, as he threw down the challenge of pairing operas written hundreds of years apart, like the master of a Victorian parlour game linking unlikely things. On the face of it Purcell’s classical tragedy Dido and Aeneas and Bernstein’s struggling American suburban family in Trouble in Tahiti have as much in common as a violin and a snowball, yet a closer examination reveals parallels. Both operas tackle disharmony in love and have a style of Greek chorus commenting on the action, a link seized on by director Maxine Braham who took a refreshingly bold approach to each work, the commentators the key to throwing new light onto both operas.

<i>Dido and Aeneas</i> © Robbie McFadzean
Dido and Aeneas
© Robbie McFadzean

In Dido and Aeneas, the chorus is mercurial in allegiance to Dido through various guises of courtiers, witches, cupids and sailors. Braham sets the opera on Belinda’s live daytime TV show, the studio audience arriving, vociferous and fickle as we see an emotionally fragile Dido preparing in the green room. Cheered by visiting dignitary Aeneas, a celebrity astrologer predicts a happy future and the TV show sends the couple off on a date to the countryside, with dance lessons thrown in. In TV land, the Sorceress is Aeneas’ jilted lover who invades the studio and whips up the chorus into a fury and hands out a fake message for delivery to the lovers. The celebrity astrologer is back, and this time the omens are not favourable.

The chorus sang with a direct in-your-face punchiness – no dreamy echoing caves here – but the well-drilled TV shorthand of a manipulated rabble out to be part of the entertainment. The main characters were uniformly strongly sung, Catrin Woodruff’s bright and breezy Belinda, Joylon Loy’s warm handsome baritone as Aeneas and Lauren Young’s evil Sorceress all large as life. At the rear of the studio, Anthony Kraus conducted a lively string orchestra with sensitive continuo from Laura Heikkila’s harpsichord and Madelyn Kowalski’s cello, all turning from swirling Baroque dance to solemn aria in a trice. Carolyn Holt’s Dido was particularly affecting, her smooth mezzo betraying little of her final intent, the beautiful final aria “When I am laid in earth” delivered from the studio sofa. The power of this interpretation lay in the now deeply shocked chorus who, faced with sharing the responsibility of Dido expiring right in front of them on live television, made a quiet exit after laying red roses from their party bags onto her corpse.

<i>Trouble in Tahiti</i> © Robbie McFadzean
Trouble in Tahiti
© Robbie McFadzean

Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is a dark piece, written between the upbeat On the Town and Candide, telling the story of Dinah and Sam, a suburban couple. With all the post-war optimism of escaping from the urban hubbub, they should be happy, but they struggle to communicate. A trio comments on the action, their music all jazzy scat singing ‘radio commercial’. Braham took the sad story and made it more sinister by creating them as puppeteer characters selling the American Dream: Mr Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Mr William J. Levitt, the designer of picket fenced suburban white houses, and Hedy Lamarr, beautiful iconic screen star who was never paid or acknowledged for inventing life-saving radio signals used to guide torpedoes for the American military. Kraus conducted the reduced ensemble version, the eight players hidden from sight, his small forces producing sparky playing from the woodwind and brass underpinned by José Javier Ucendo’s piano and jazzy percussion and bass.

In a study of money and power, the trio promises happy suburban living with material goods as the sun “kisses the roses around the front door of the Little White House”, but in seven short scenes, we see Dinah and Sam bicker in a downward relationship spiral. Arthur Bruce's strongly sung Sam gives money to Dinah for her analyst, at work refuses a loan to a Mr Partridge, but grants a large one to clubbable Bill while also slipping his secretary some cash to buy her silence over his past indiscretions. Karina Bligh, Robin Horgan and Oskar McCarthy were an animated, amusing if at times slightly underpowered trio to rise over the enthusiastic score. Bruce and Fiona Joice were strong leads, Joice broadening out in her dream aria “I was standing in a garden”, animated as she goes to the movies alone to see the Polynesian island feature Trouble in Tahiti, which the couple goes to see again, solemnly eating popcorn in the dark. They try to patch things up, but as Bernstein revisited the characters 30 years on In a Quiet Place, the damage had been done.

Braham is also a choreographer and both operas were enlivened with dancers and movement, but her thoughtful interpretations made this unlikely pairing work well.

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