“One day, perhaps, my unhappy destiny will be a storybook memory, and my torments will suggest sad and tragic scenes of grief for the stage,” sings Dido (Act III.17). Virgil might have told her she wouldn’t be far wrong. The poetic and prolific 18th century librettist Metastasio took the great Carthaginian queen as one of his very earliest inspirations. Jommelli, our composer, himself made four versions of Dido’s tale. La Didone performed by Ensemble Serse at the Grosvenor Chapel (premièred in Rome, 1746) is the third of Jommelli’s four versions.  Dido – beloved, betrayed, bereft – lends herself to any opera magnificently, and nothing rounds off a story like a self-immolation scene. But Metastasio makes adept additions and extensions to Virgil’s characters from Aeneid Book IV: the role of Dido's spurned African suitor King Iarbas is hugely enlarged to overshadow her relationship with Aeneas throughout politically and emotionally, which would be neither possible nor plausible in Virgil, where he is merely rejected, and cross about it (thereby calling upon the gods to witness the queen's illicit "marriage" to Aeneas, which provokes them to order the Trojan hero to leave and fulfil his destiny). Dido’s stolid sister Anna is transformed into Metastasio’s Selene, herself filled with forbidden love for Aeneas. This makes for a tragedy of love triangles, jealousy and desperation which has significant dramatic potential, and even an occasional comic edge. However, in this concert performance, music was firmly to the fore: drama was somewhat muted.

La Didone has clearly been a labour of love for Ensemble Serse. Excavating the score from IMSLP, composing timpani parts, correcting copyists’ errors, recreating period ornamentation, performing the score in its entirety without a single note cut (there are fifty scenes in all, producing almost five hours of music): the whole enterprise speaks of fervent devotion. The company’s passion was evident in both the fine playing (conducted superbly from the harpsichord by Chad Kelly, who never took his eye off the ball) and lyrical, committed singing from a strong all-male cast.  Any chance to hear five counter-tenors at once is extraordinary. However, this original version was surely designed for both the usual behaviour, as well as the ears, of an 18th century audience: an audience who would have chatted, eaten, drank and flirted throughout the performance, rolling in late after a good dinner or sailing out at half-time towards a fashionable party. They would not have sat in serried, silent ranks in an (admittedly beautiful) church, listening patiently to da capo repetition after da capo repetition from the first to the 300th minute. This mismatch was only magnified as time went on; I became increasingly grateful for the cushion on my pew.

Some pruning would have been merciful: it would also have been dramatically beneficial. Jommelli’s elaborate and beautiful music creates room for enough scene changes and stage business to satisfy the most hyperactive director, and the plot is a goldmine of emotional opportunities, but in a concert performance, these aspects become flat. Nevertheless, Metastasio’s Didone is beautifully drawn: preremptory, pouting, and regal. Her scenes with King Jarba are classically comic, as they 'out-grandstand' one another with defiant magnificence, underpinned by some sharp gender observation. Metastasio explores Enea’s inner turmoil at abandoning Didone with acuity, in far more detail than Virgil (for political reasons) ever dared, painting us a vivid picture of someone genuinely torn between love and divinely-ordained duty: there is nothing dull about Metastasio’s Aeneas.

Tom Verney, as Didone, did bring us drama and pathos in spades. The strongest actor in the cast, Verney has a clear relish for the music, radiating joy and confidence in his singing while attacking his arias with flair; and, with just the right mix of pathos and petulance, Verney’s Didone was tender, playful, poignant and utterly believable. Ronan Busfield was convincing as the arrogant King Jarba, his rich, rounded tenor making a delicious contrast to the other voices on stage. Busfield, singing with palpable enjoyment, has a smooth strength throughout his range which allows him to achieve piano moments of surprising softness and elegance, as well as fortissimo blind fury.

Alexander Pullinger constantly impressed as Selene, with wonderful control from his first jaw-dropping solo to his last. Making a pure, clean sound, his voice pierced the Grosvenor Chapel’s lovely acoustic with floating ease, sensuous, erotic and graceful. The oily Osmida, who constantly changed sides and risked being blasted by his own petard, was sung with burgeoning confidence and conviction by James Hall. Martin Milnes made a competent Baroque debut (his first foray into the genre) as the scheming henchman Araspe: his unusual voice negotiated the complex music with accuracy and charm.

Calvin Wells, the moving spirit behind the whole project, took on the musically ferocious role of Enea. Assured in its lower ranges, his voice found the stratospheric requirements of the role ever harder to deal with as the evening went on, which unfortunately detracted from an otherwise vibrantly impassioned performance.  

Like Ensemble Serse’s meticulously-researched programme (which contains so much information that, perversely, extracting simple facts becomes tricky), the evening was altogether a salient reminder that an exhaustively perfect rendition, even with moments of marvellous beauty, can also be exhausting. Less would have been infinitely more.