A valediction followed by a tragedy. The Academy of Ancient Music drank deep from the well of Elizabethan melancholy in a programme that placed Purcell’s condensed masterpiece Dido and Aeneas alongside the imagined funeral music for the death of Elizabeth I, the first half a dramatic confection of instrumental and vocal works. 

Caitlin Hulcup and Rowan Pierce © Mark Allan | Barbican
Caitlin Hulcup and Rowan Pierce
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Scowling singers, busying themselves with atmospheric (though ultimately needless) stage business, crept about Richard Egarr and the AAM, who performed selections from Purcell’s secretive and gloomy chamber music, introduced with grimly struck tabor. Some trio sonatas, a chaconne, and then some songs, with texts from John Dryden, William D’Avenant, and Francis Quarles. 

Egarr was an unobtrusive music director in the first half, letting the nominated violins and cello do the work; tutti textures were managed masterfully, thickening and loosening the music with preternatural coolness. Special mention should be made of the dazzling theorbo work from William Carter and Eligio Luis Quintero, who gave the singers a darkly burnished accompaniment, then turning their hands to meltingly sad Baroque guitars in the suspended, endless chaconnes embedded in Dido and Aeneas in the second half.

It was a risky move: much of it was down to a small group of soloists, who were asked to fill the unfeeling acoustic of the Barbican. In the stalls it sounded wonderful: Ashley Riches and Rowan Pierce duetted and fought over the mock-body of Elizabeth I, with the former showing off some premium low notes in the grief-stricken "Close thine eyes and sleep secure". But I wonder how much the rest of the hall heard of the dazzling virtuosity of the final chaconne (Chacony Z807) of the first half, where the emotional intensity increased with every repetition of the bass line.

Ashley Riches (right) © Mark Allan | Barbican
Ashley Riches (right)
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Dido and Aeneas saw everyone drop the sense of formal propriety established in the first hour. It’s an enigmatic opera, with no clearly established historical context for its first performances, and lots of scope for spectacle, thanks to Purcell’s inventive use of the chorus. This is where the lid came off, the AAM delivering a feeling of dramatic and musical continuity that was less cohesive in the first half.

Egarr has something infernal about him: no wonder he leapt away from the band in the witches’ chorus to join in their revels. He has a magnetic stage presence and immaculate sense of pacing, managing seamless transitions between scenes that turns this most episodic of operas into an unfolding dramatic and musical texture.

This sense of forward momentum is vital in an opera that depicts the merciless, fateful changeability that drives Dido to her eventual death. The semi-staged production required the chorus to work with puppets, who appeared as their blank, alabaster doubles. Dido and Aeneas had their own puppeteers (Laura Caldow and Ben Thompson respectively) accompanying them about the stage, whereas the chorus carried their own smaller marionettes. The effect was to create something ritualistic and uncanny, suspended between the abstract and the intensely felt. And bravi all round to a chorus singing consistently with one arm, well, not quite tied behind their backs, but certainly occupied. All the cast performed with bare feet, a small touch balancing the cold intensity of the puppets with a sort of vulnerability.

And what a chorus they proved to be, infinitely flexible whether as witches or sailors: they rasped, howled, jeered, and danced their way through big numbers that were sympathetically lit and unfussily directed by William Guthrie. And the closing valediction "With Drooping Wings" featured some outstanding, though understated, ensemble singing.  

Bass-baritone Ashley Riches was an imperious yet tender Aeneas who let loose in the second half: he can float about the upper register with all the translucent melancholy required, and rage and burn with passion and despair lower down. Rowan Pierce’s Belinda was plangent and sweet and innately dramatic, and acted well with Dido in the key recitatives. Bass Neal Davies was the Sorceress, who had a deliciously nasty blackness in his voice and wasn’t afraid to ham it up a bit. 

Rowan Pierce © Mark Allan | Barbican
Rowan Pierce
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Caitlin Hulcup replaced the indisposed mezzo Christine Rice, but to absolutely no detriment. Her voice is organ-like, round and resonant, with gorgeous overtones, and a sense of line that made the recitatives hold taut the dramatic string pinched by Egarr’s continuo section at the other end. Her big number, Dido's Lament, was quick, perhaps detrimentally so. The bass-line was launched by Egarr with cruel, spare inexorability, contrasting with the pathos of Hulcup’s performance, first dreamlike, then pleading. It hurt in all the right places, a deeply moving performance enriched by a carefully controlled vibrato and tasteful ornamentation in keeping with the production’s restraint: what a pity it’s only getting the one performance.