We all know Dido and Aeneas. Or do we? Neil Fisher on some novel rethinking.
Composer anniversary years are always more likely to throw up more old classics than hidden rarities. Given an official licence by the calendar to delve deep into Beethoven or Mozart, you can generally predict that forgotten gems will ultimately give way to more Fifth Symphony and more Marriage of Figaro.
But if the celebrations for Purcell's 350th birthday year are being firmly pegged to his most familiar and best-loved creation, Dido and Aeneas, then this old warhorse is being newly shod. This spring brings two new productions of Purcell's Dido, and the styles couldn't be more different. In the blue corner, the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, who has persuaded the Royal Opera House to unite its opera and ballet wings for a Purcell and Handel double bill (the Handel half is the composer's one-act Acis and Galatea). And in the red, contemporary theatre's great experimentalist, Katie Mitchell, whose After Dido — a coproduction between English National Opera and the Young Vic — is not so much a presentation of Purcell's opera as a conceptual response to it.
For Mitchell the journey has been a deeply personal one. “Dido is one of those pieces that I've always had in my life. It just seeped into me. But now, having researched it, I realise how unique it is.”
It's a detective trail that few interpreters of Dido and Aeneas can ignore. For one thing, the “official” story of what is generally thought to be the first English opera is tantalising enough. Here is a masterpiece apparently brought to life in a Chelsea private school in 1689 — to be precise, Josias Priest and his wife's “boarding school for young gentlewomen”. As a result, the singing is restrained, the scoring unusually intimate, the whole piece boiled down to an hour: this is, after all, basically 4B's term play. The result is a piece unlike any other of its time, capped by one of classical music's great hits, the devastating Lament.
Well, it sounds good, anyway. But the truth is that no one really knows how much of what we now have of Dido and Aeneas is as the composer and librettist (Nahum Tate) intended. “What everyone knows as Dido is in fact parts of Dido,” says Christopher Hogwood, who will conduct the Royal Opera's staging. “And that makes it very hard to judge as a theatrical concept.”
Hogwood believes that many of the work's distinguishing characteristics - its economy of gesture, its dance interludes — may actually be more to do with the piece's awkward transfer from the King's court (where, in all probability, it had flopped) to that odd revival in Chelsea. “The girls would have wanted to dance, but stray ballet in a court performance would not have been welcome.” Conversely, the girls wouldn't have wanted anything to do with the elaborate prologue, according to Hogwood “a completely separate act that introduced concepts and political ramifications — the theory behind the whole thing”.
It's not surprising that Mitchell's research eventually hit a brick wall. But the lingering mysteries also helped Mitchell reach After Dido. “Maybe the absence of the prologue sharpens its modernity to us. Maybe that's the attraction — that it doesn't have those frills. It's like the heart of something came down to us that doesn't naturally live in its period.”
Time travel looms large in After Dido, because ultimately Mitchell found herself more interested in what today's audience find in the piece than Purcell's may or may not have done. She was startled to find out that her Dido, mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, frequently receives deeply personal messages from those who have heard her sing the role. “There are people who say that they've found it cathartic because of events in their own lives; people who had experienced grief, but found the music particularly moving,” Bickley says.
After Dido might be seen more as their stories than Purcell's. “What interested me,” says Mitchell, “is why people listen to music, and what they actually get from it.” So, as the show has evolved, Bickley and her cast will sing the full Dido score as if performing a live radio broadcast; on “stage”, meanwhile, will be the stories of three contemporary Londoners who are listening to the broadcast for solace. One has just lost her husband, one has split from her partner, and one is on the verge of suicide. All this is in Dido's story, of course, but it's refracted into the three plot strands, united by the shared experience of hearing the opera. And, in trademark Mitchell style, filmed relays of the action will reinforce the sense of dislocation.
Jumping over to Wayne McGregor's production might seem at first like a step back. Here is dance firmly back on the agenda, and his staging's Neo-Classical costumes and set appear to restore the Renaissance allusions. But McGregor is even less interested in authenticity than Mitchell. “There's always an expectation that when a choreographer does an opera that there'll be lots of dancing,” he says, “that all of a sudden we're going to use somebody bopping around. But the skill of a choreographer is how to use the body, and the principles of the body, to communicate meaning.”
If that sounds abstruse, it isn't: McGregor is just much less interested in Baroque dance (“I really didn't want to make a chaconne”) than in using both song and movement to express the depths of the story.
What's surprising is how his own reactions to the score match Mitchell's: here is a piece, he agrees, that the listener can connect with personally. “There is something about the music that's so descriptive — not in a didactic way, but in a way that pulls in your emotions. And it's the universality of it — death, love, loss, sisterly love.” Expect those themes to be elaborated by the Royal Ballet's soloists, rather than dominated by them: whenever the singing starts, any formal dance will actually stop. “I've seen lots of productions in which Dido is singing, and someone dancing her at the same time, but the eloquence of Dido is in the minimalism, the stripped narrative.”
Arguably the singers have borne the brunt of this integrated approach more than the dancers. For Sarah Connolly, who sings Dido, that meant a more holistic approach. “The most important thing is to play the duality — the fear of falling in love with Aeneas, and physical act of succumbing. So I set my body two challenges — one to melt, and one to resist.” Ultimately, it's physical desire that defeats Dido's resolve. “My job is to show how much in love with Aeneas she really is — the truly emotional, sexual passion. And in this respect Wayne has been very helpful.”
Whether experimental theatre or dance fusion, perhaps the strongest connection between these two productions is that a piece that has always defied classification is now being used to challenge the very nature of opera. For McGregor, that means getting singers to change the way they behave. “Freeing the body and being more communicative gives you a huge range of motivation and intention, and that stops stiff or ‘operatic' language.” For Mitchell, After Dido is an even more explicit attempt to break a stereotype: she wants to find a new audience. “Our target is inspiring young people with the possibilities of music. This one little bridge we're building could be the one they cross — not just to Dido and Aeneas, but to classical music.” It's a lot to ask of a class play, but if there's one piece that can do it, it's this one.