You don’t expect a wailing electric guitar to welcome you to the world of Dido and Aeneas, but that is the first sound heard in this unique reimagining of Purcell’s Baroque masterpiece. Director David Marton and composer Kalle Kalima have expanded the spare but satisfying original work by nearly an hour, adding flourishes of contemporary experimental music, spoken text in several languages, and visual cues that are often arresting but occasionally confounding. Premiered at Opéra National de Lyon in 2019 under the title Dido and Aeneas, Remembered, it transitions into a fully produced streaming film from Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.

Dido and Aeneas
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen | Annemie Augustijns

Although I would hardly categorize myself as a stringent traditionalist, I frequently find these extra-textual re-evaluations lead to subtraction by addition. That is often the case here. However brief, Purcell and Nahum Tate’s original work tells a complete story, and for a work that emerged at the dawn of an art form, it still feels surprisingly fresh more than 300 years later. Among other aspects, it’s fascinating to consider how the original privileges Dido’s perspective in a manner that could be described as proto-feminist. Marton and Kalima’s reworking shifts the focus quite often to Aeneas and the Sorceress, with the latter played by American-born performance artist Erika Stucky. The mighty Queen of Carthage often becomes a footnote in her own story.

Alix Le Saux (Dido) and Guillaume Andrieux (Aeneas)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen | Annemie Augustijns

The intentions of the new material also start to seem somewhat muddled. The extended opening scene, fashioned as an archaeological dig, reveals a contemporary smartphone amid Roman rubble – a device that will eventually end up in Dido’s hand. Is this a commentary on the vacuity of social media culture? Would Dido have been something less regal by today’s standards… an influencer, perhaps? Images of bombed-out hospitals and war zones come across as nakedly didactic. Other filmic interludes resemble stock footage. I sense the overall impetus was to represent a melding of time periods – a way to suggest how little power dynamics and statecraft have changed since the ancient world – but the end result is sometimes more twee than profound.

Erika Stucky (Sorceress)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen | Annemie Augustijns

The B’Rock Orchestra, under the direction of Bart Naessens, handles the demands of Purcell’s score well. Kalima’s improvisatory additions are purposely anachronistic, and while not entirely unpleasant, he could have done more to integrate them into the musical language of the original. His contributions come across best in the hands of Stucky, who is decidedly not an operatic talent but an arresting presence, nonetheless. Perhaps because she is unmoored from the demands of the original, her performance feels freer and more of a piece with Marton’s mise-en-scène. She does not escape archness entirely – at one point, she goads Aeneas with lines from the David Bowie song Heroes – but her work here is what you’re likely to remember.

Claron McFadden (Belinda) and Alix Le Saux (Dido)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen | Annemie Augustijns

Among the other principals, Claron McFadden fared best as Belinda, cast as a power-suited consigliere. She offers clear diction and a pretty tone that belies an undercurrent of steely reserve. Perhaps because Dido is diminished by the staging, Alix Le Saux’s rendition of the Lament contained little gravity, although it was vocally correct. Guillaume Andrieux deployed a pretty, high baritone as Aeneas, but suffered from cloudy English diction and somewhat vacant acting in what is now the central role. Given the prominence, a more nuanced actor is needed to sell the concept.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen live video stream