Ad Parnassum and L’Offerta Musicale di Venezia’s interpretation of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was original and engaging, combining the traditional elements of music, singing and drama with dance and props.

© Sebastian Charlesworth
© Sebastian Charlesworth

The story tells one of the most tragic tales of love and loss. Before founding Rome, Aeneas was a Trojan soldier and when Troy fell, he left with his followers by ship. He was shipwrecked on the shores of the city of Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido. Dido and Aeneas fell deeply in love, but Aeneas was called away to his destiny in Italy and Dido was left heartbroken as he sailed away. In her despair she commits suicide. Other characters, such as the black-caped Sorceress and Mercury, add further twists to the story.

The performance opened with Dido centre stage, and five women in white dresses styled in the fashion of Greek goddesses. They were posed in a statuesque manner down the two side-aisles of the audience as L’Offerta Musicale di Venezia played the overture on the stage. The ladies then moved slowly into action through “Shake the cloud from off your brow”, and onto the stage as Dido, played by Miranda Heldt, sung “Ah Belinda, I am press’d with torment”. Heldt had a soft quality to her voice, demonstrating control with enough power to fill the room. As a mezzo-soprano, the lower notes were particularly resonant and warming giving her a certain identity as a character and a voice. She presented the opposing moods of tenderness and tragedy with a refined stage presence as the leading lady. Naomi Kilby played the supporting role of Belinda, providing a comforting character who was easily liked. Playing behind the singers, the cast was given instrumental support by L’Offerta Musicale di Venezia, and at no point was the balance between singer and instrument out. Placing instrumentalists on stage appears to be increasingly frequent in smaller modern opera productions and definitely enhances the overall sound of the piece.

The staging of the opera made use of the space at St George’s, with the sorceress Krysia Mansfield entering from behind the audience at the beginning of Act II, and doors on both sides of the stage being used throughout the performance. A touring opera will always have certain limitations for the stage set, but this was accounted for with an interesting use of props and good costumes. The sea was represented by two sheets of blue satin fabric, which were moved around by the female chorus, also serving several other functions. The sailing of Aeneas was represented by an intricate model ship apparently afloat the vast blue ocean. In front of this ocean, some of the scenes of Dido and Aeneas meeting were represented by two rag dolls made to look like the characters. The female chorus also manipulated these dolls to great effect. Mercury, sung by Aglaia Maria Mika from behind the blue sheets, was represented by a gold mask on a pole with gold leaves as decoration. Laura Cordery and Bettina John as designers should certainly be congratulated on their imaginative efforts.

The harpsichordist of L’Offerta Musicale di Venezia kept the pace steady with strong continuo playing throughout the performance. It felt a little slow at times, though in each of the musical interludes between songs, the chorus ladies performed short dances choreographed by Roberto De Gregori. The style of dance was a mix of Baroque, contemporary and ballet, which fitted well with the genre and modern style of the opera. All in all, this was an evening which displayed many different performance talents.