The Royal Academy of Music tonight presented the fruits of their latest postgraduate opera course with two short operas representing opposite ends of the musical timeline.

Dido and Aeneas © Royal Academy of Music
Dido and Aeneas
© Royal Academy of Music

Purcell’s miniature three-act opera really needs no introduction. Based around the story of the ill-fated love between Dido and Aeneas, aided by Dido’s confidante Belinda and thwarted at every turn by the evil Sorceress and her handmaidens, Dido and Aeneas here received a modern, minimalist interpretation in which the characters interacted on a kind of giant chessboard of nine brightly lit squares. The music and the action was fast-paced, with the characters, dressed all in white, moving fluidly around the stage, always involved in the action. Sonia Grane as Belinda had a lovely, light and playful air to both her voice and her acting, which suited the surreal, space-age feel of the set and costumes. She occasionally omitted some of the biting Purcellian rhythms that characterise her first “Shake the clouds” aria, but her diction was crisp and clear throughout.

The role of Dido, played in this production by Sarah Shorter, is a powerful one: she is a strong ruler with real fire in her belly. I thought, although her voice was somewhat light for the traditional portrayal of the role, Shorter’s presence was strong and the naturalistic portrayal of Dido and Aeneas’ courtship (they couldn’t keep their hands off each other!) was a refreshing one, if maybe not to everyone’s taste.

When Aeneas (Samuel Pantcheff) finally arrived, clad in a smart white suit, he played the role of the lover with much aplomb, although his voice was somewhat lacking in lustre. However, their love is not to be, as the Sorceress, who has been haunting Dido throughout the first act – together with her two witches, played in this production as mischievious toy dolls, complete with lollipops – conjure up a spell to tear the lovers apart. The famous lament at the end of the opera lacked emotional impact, due to the frivolous nature of the rest of the production, which was rather a shame. However, the final chorus, sung by the extremely competent offstage chorus, was well managed.

The second half of the evening was taken up with Peter Maxwell Davies’ harrowing opera The Lighthouse. Performed by three men only, it is based on the true story of the lighthouse supply ship Hesperus, travelling on its routine tour of duty to the Flannen Islands on the Outer Hebrides, and finding the lighthouse empty, all three beds empty and the table laid for dinner, the keepers having disappeared into thin air.

The Prologue is based on the Court of Inquiry, the three sailors presenting their sides of the story, and the stage split into three distinct sections: one for each testimony. There was an interesting interplay between the three men as their stories shifted and changed with each comment from their colleagues. However, it was in the main act of the opera, subtitled “The Cry of the Beast”, that the three singers really came into their own.

We are transported to the lighthouse, and witness the three keepers at their last dinner, trapped in their individual stages of madness. They each sing each other songs to while away the time – Blazes (Samuel Queen) telling a disturbingly upbeat tale of killing his neighbour for a sack of money, Sandy (Iain Milne) remembering his childhood love, and Arthur (Andri Björn Róbertsson) singing a fervently religious soliloquy. These starkly contrasting tunes, taking their inspiration from traditional Scottish folk songs, showed the three men to their full vocal ability – and each was incredibly impressive in their own way. The ranges of the roles were simply unbelievable and all three shone in their chest and falsetto registers. Although not always beautiful, the singing was striking, at times unnerving, and completely compelling.

The gripping score, making use of a whole range of musical instruments not usually found in an orchestra, combined with the exemplary vocal ability and acting skill of the three singers made for a second half which flew by, leaving the audience feeling unsettled by the story unfolding in front of us. The whole opera ends with a question mark, the lighthouse keepers once again sitting down to dinner, as if the whole thing had never happened at all. It certainly was an evening of two contrasting halves, showing all that the RAM Opera students have achieved, and if this was anything to go by, we will be seeing some of these young stars on the bigger stages very soon.