Dido & Aeneas
Spitalfields Festival. Armonico Consort
Village Underground, 9 June 2015
I’m not sure if the ‘alternative’ venue of Village Underground (with old London underground trains, converted into artist’s studios, on the roof) was the ideal venue for this performance of Dido & Aeneas, not least given the nature of Armonico Consort’s rather staid production. It was also singularly unwise of director Christopher Monks to tell us all in his introductory talk that we would have “never seen a performance like this before”. I am still not quite sure what he meant by that remark, but it kept me waiting for something special or unusual to happen – which it didn’t. His comment did turn out to be true, in a way, but not in the way that I think he intended.
Positioning the audience on three sides of the performance area, but then arranging the instrumentalists and chorus in traditional front-facing manner wasn’t a good start. Although there were times when the singers used the space, they were few and far between. They all processed in (and exited) like a group of blind prisoners, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front. I initially assumed that would lead to a development of that theme, but nothing came of it. The only real innovation was have the first violinist, Miles Golding, leap from his seat to become the First Sailer taking a boozy short leave from his music stand. Accompanying himself as he sang, this became one of the most memorable moments. It was a shame he wasn’t acknowledged as the singer in the cast list.
Although they have already recorded this, and have presumably performed it live before, some of the soloists were singing from scores, making dramatisation difficult. There also seemed to be some awkwardness and hesitation in the staging, perhaps because of the surroundings. But the biggest issue for me was the standard of singing, which was well below what is usually expected of Spitalfields Festival events. Belinda was decidedly under-par, a nervous-sounding vibrato being just one issue, Rachael Lloyd, as Dido, had a far better voice, but again with too much vibrato for this repertoire and with little help from the conductor, who pushed her pace too much. In fact, I rarely got the impression that he was actually listening to any of his singers.
As is often the case, the finest singer had the part of the First Witch, Second Woman and Spirit. As well as fine singing (light and flexible, and with a proper trill), Eloise Irving also displayed by far the best acting ability. The Sorceress was a lacklustre characterisation in one of those penetrating counter-tenor voices that usually make me wince. Robert Davies’s Aeneas was perfectly acceptable, but he also lacked dramatic intent.
Conducting from the harpsichord is always tricky, not least in the fact that you can rarely do both at the same time with much success. Choosing when to stop the continuo harpsichord should be based on musical factors, rather than just being on those moments when you feel the need to wave both arms about at the same time. The sudden harpsichord drop-outs were musically distracting. The instrumentalists were helped by subtle leadership from the Miles Golding, and very sound cello continuo playing from Natasha Durban. The double bass should not have been there in the first place (Purcell would have used a bass violin instead of the more modern cello and double bass) but it could have played more often at 8’ pitch, and a great deal less heavy-handed. It was a continual distraction.
The rather self-satisfied concluding comments from Christopher Monks rather rubbed salt into my musical wounds. I would have preferred that far more attention had been given to the music, the singing and the dramatic opportunities of the text and music, than to such obvious and misplaced self-promotion.