Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is well-known to most opera-goers, but as produced by Sasha Waltz and Guests at the Sydney Festival, it was radically defamiliarised. Quite some time had elapsed before the familiar strains of the overture were heard, and while I didn’t notice anything significant being omitted from the opera thereafter, other material was freely interpolated. Some of Purcell’s other music was used (most obviously, the second part of the famous theme which Britten used in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), but there were also lengthy passages of stage action without music. The resultant experience was at times fascinating, at others irritating, but never dull. In fact, it was so visually engaging that the music and singers were often crowded out.

© Jamie Williams
© Jamie Williams

When this production was released on DVD in 2008, it was described as a choreographic opera, a genre descriptor which suggests the increased significance of dance and movement. The opening scene saw a number of actor-dancers dive into a tank of water, and their balletic interactions bathed in golden light were among the most beautiful images of the night. Other actors declaimed lines from the Prologue (for which Purcell’s music has been lost), with the chorus singing music which sounded echt Purcellian but was not from Dido.

Once the opera proper started, it was clear that dance would play a huge role. I was reminded of my first experience of opera in Germany, a performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Munich in the early 2000s, where a troupe of acrobat-dancers performed in the background during the many da capo arias. Here matters were more fluid – the chorus and dancers were frequently mingled – but there were lots of interpretative gestures and gentle feats of strength. At times this was bewildering: the dozen or so people rolling around in synchronised fashion during one scene didn’t seem to have any obvious motivation for doing so (and the synchrony with the orchestra here was not perfect). At others it was poignant and beautiful: the ill-fated attraction between Dido and Aeneas in Act III was captured by the two groups of dancers who stretched yearningly towards each other. The witches’ scene in Act II seemed to reference the iconography of Michelangelo’s famous Last Judgment, with the crowd on the left upright and orderly, while those opposite were crouched and deformed.

© Jamie Williams
© Jamie Williams
Since through an administrative failure I hadn’t been provided with a program beforehand, it was only gradually that I became aware that individual dancers were doubling the singers’ roles. In fact, Dido had two such dancing alter egos. Her famous final lament “When I am laid in earth” was sung through a curtain of hair, and ended with one of her dancing doubles strangling the other. For the following chorus “With drooping wings”, the singers on the stage were initially static, which had all the more force after the earlier frenetic activities.

At the end of Act I, the choreography threatened to derail the opera entirely. In a lengthy interlude without music, actors tossed their outer clothing into the air, cavorted and performed acrobatic feats. A supposedly comic deportment lesson in French fell rather flat. It all felt rather sophomoric, an introduction of avant-garde theatrical jouissance into a space where it wasn’t best suited. For me, it served as a reminder of the crucial role music plays in immersing the audience in the often highly improbable story-world of opera. Dido is in fact unusual among Purcell’s stage works in having through-composed music. The mixed media event that Waltz and co. presented was actually closer to the kind of thing 17th-century audiences might have encountered in a work like The Fairy Queen, where discrete operatic sections are interpolated between the acts of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

© Jamie Williams
© Jamie Williams

Perhaps the biggest drawback of this production is that it was too distracting. The eye was constantly being pulled in several directions at once, and one had to make a conscious effort to notice the singers and instrumentalists at all. The Akademie für alte Musik Berlin under Christopher Moulds was actually first rate, accompanying sensitively and, during the later repetitions of “Fear no danger”, employing tasteful and imaginative embellishments. The acoustic in the Lyric theatre did the singers no favours, but Dido (Aurore Ugolin) was good in her big numbers, and the two witches (Sebastian Lipp and Michael Bennett) came through well. Deborah York (as Belinda) and Céline Ricci (as the Second Woman) both sounded pleasant, but didn’t impose themselves on their parts. Reuben Willcox (Aeneas) was no more than effective, and Fabrice Mantegna (Sorceress) was barely that. But then, this was a production where the singers didn’t really have a chance to shine.