Sunday 22 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Dido's Ghost, or The Perils of the Sequel

 A standout in last year's BBC Radio 3 Proms Archive season was a rebroadcast of a 2003 late night performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas which reminded me what a masterpiece it is. I think it is therefore fair to say that to attempt to write a sequel to it is a brave decision, and, even more so, to construct that sequel such that the new work incorporates what sounded to me like a pretty complete performance of Purcell's original.

Composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have in fact a strong idea for their new work - which is to pick up the story with Aeneas some years later in his new kingdom, haunted by his treatment of Dido. The problems lie in the execution. Aeneas's immediate mental crisis is triggered by the arrival in Lavinium of Dido's sister Anna. Aeneas offers her the sanctuary of the palace. Once there they all - Aeneas, Anna, and Aeneas's new Queen, Lavinia - proceed to take up roles in a re-enactment of Purcell's opera. I'd arrived almost as curtain was going up, so hadn't time to read the detailed synopsis in the programme which, judging by a reading after the event, might have helped. As it was I could only go with the narrative as presented on stage, and I'm afraid it just made no sense to me that such a performance would be organised in this context, nor was I convinced by the reasons provided for the characters assuming parts within the masque. That synopsis suggests that it is all being masterminded by Purcell's Belinda, except that she is now supposed to be the Spirit of the Theatre - in other words the Gods are to blame - but I'm afraid a convincing controlling spiritual power was not created as far as I was concerned. From near the very back of the auditorium I also ended up in one complete moment of confusion at the start of the Witches scene in the Purcell when it seemed as if there were two Aeneases in the action and one of them had taken on the role of the Sorceress - I think a contributory factor here may be the very minimal costuming which doesn't always help to distinguish characters.

It also takes some time for it to become clear that Wallen & Stace's intended focus is Aeneas and his guilt. At times it seems as if it could be Anna or Lavinia. Additionally, after their fairly lengthy expository section which opens the work most of the Wallace/Stace interjections are brief. In consequence the drama of Aeneas's guilt and search for redemption doesn't build effectively. When (spoiler) in their biggest intervention in relation to the Purcell they hand him Dido's Lament I'm afraid I didn't think that he'd earnt it or the redemption that his singing it implies.

Musically Wallen's writing for voices in the opening section didn't make a huge impression on me (the choral interjections were stronger). Later there are some striking solos where the focus is narrowed, and the instrumentation distinctive - the introduction of a kind of driving bass of drums and, I think, electric guitar, is telling. Stace's text is stronger than a number of other contemporary opera texts I've heard in recent times, excepting some unfortunate rhyming couplets which had the effect of making me think of G&S. But the problem is that their additions didn't to my mind come together as a coherent whole. Despite chopping up the Purcell (and maybe the effect is different if you don't know the Purcell well) I found it still held together - my ears once Purcell was first introduced kept waiting expectantly for us to go back to it. In other words this structuring constantly forces the listener to make comparison and, I'm afraid, the comparison doesn't fundamentally favour Wallen & Stace.

Performance-wise the line-up is generally vocally strong, while tending to make less effect dramatically - I think partly because of the perhaps necessarily spare staging (by Freddie Wake-Walker), and partly because the distance to the back of the tent (a point we'll come back to) is considerable and to my eyes the staging struggled to bridge it. I would also say that I have heard the Purcell sung with more character than in this case - the delivery of text was not always completely secure in those sections, and Henry Waddington's Sorcerer sounded as if the part did not entirely suit his vocal range. John Butt switches the Dunedin Consort effortlessly between the two sound worlds - actually for me probably the most magical moment was when Purcell's overture swept out through the auditorium.

Most readers will probably be aware that all of this (like nearly the entirety of the EIF's programme this year) was taking place in one of the three tents the Festival has constructed - in this case the one out on Arboretum Avenue. The design is a very long rectangle. The Festival has ended up in this position (in noticeable contrast to most venues/organisations down South) because of serious failings on the part of both the Scottish Government and the City of Edinburgh Council in planning for the emergence of the live arts from pandemic restrictions. I've discussed this extensively on social media so won't rehearse the whole business again here but these failings centred on lack of timely timescales to enable organisational planning and differential treatment of the hospitality and cultural sectors. In the end it appears the EIF felt that it had no choice but to undertake the bulk of its programme in these outdoor tents. These do have the merits of retaining social distancing (in contrast to quite a few performances down south which have abandoned it without enforcing protective measures like mask wearing) but there are acoustic consequences.

My previous outdoor performance experience this summer was attending Opera Holland Park for the first time. There are notable contrasts - after the first 10-15 minutes or so of the two operas I attended there I forgot about the possible enhancement of sound that was going on and was swept into the drama. This never wholly happened at this performance. To my ear (& I had the same impression at the morning piano recital in the Old College tent) dynamic range is flattened by the acoustic and I had much less sense of natural resonance compared to how the sound felt at Opera Holland Park. I wonder if having Holland House as the backdrop at the latter assists. I also suspect that OHP having a more semi-circular auditorium may be another factor - I was close to the back row on both occasions I attended but didn't feel the distance from the performers as I did here - it would be interesting to know how the capacities compare. My companions were much more complimentary about the venue. Clearly if you've been confined to Scotland I'm sure you are thankful to have any live performances at all, but at neither concert could I quite shake the memory of the venues we would usually be in. If one thing comes out of this saga I hope it's that Council and Festival truly appreciate their fortune in having two of the finest indoor acoustics in the country for classical music, actively and vocally embrace them, and that we hear a bit less of the "we must reduce the footprint of the Festival in the city centre" talk.

Overall, this is an interesting attempt at a new opera, finely performed musically and solidly staged but this sequel didn't engage me emotionally the way that Purcell's original does, and for that reason I have my doubts as to whether it will achieve a comparable longevity on our stages.


Lisa Hirsch said...

That really is an interesting concept; too bad the execution didn't work.

I must mention that Wesley Stace is the author of a novel, "Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer," that I suspect you might like.

David Smythe said...

How we are missing the Usher Hall and Queens Hall. The tents feel safe and the sound team work miracles, but it's a long way from ideal.

Finn Pollard said...

@Lisa - thanks for the book recommendation - I'll look into it.

@David - I agree. Sound wise - I find the Old College Quad seems to be improving for me as I've attended more there. I really don't seem to be able to get on well with the acoustic at the Academy.

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