Thursday 9 April 2009

Review of "Dido and Aeneas" and "Acis and Galatea"

Frankly, last night's double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House was something of a disappointment.

Dido looked stunning in Hildegard Bechtler's spare designs and the singers were all kitted out in slightly Japanese-esque long costumes (men and women) by Fontini Dimou. Wayne McGregor's view of Dido predominantly sombre which worked well with Sarah Connolly's superb Dido. But McGregor is also a choreographer and Dido included a group of dancers from the Royal Ballet, and of course the ballet includes dance music.

I think it was Ian Caddy who once said of the role of Aeneas, that it had never made sense to him until he had realised that Josiah Priest was a dancing master and that if he had taken Aeneas, dancing would have been as important as singing. But McGregor seems to have decided to take a 'divide and rule' option. The dancers danced and the singers sang and rarely did the two meet. In fact, apart from a little tentative movement, the singers were pretty static.

The dancers, wearing costumes which looked like stylish gym kit, appeared danced and went away again, rarely relating to the singers. Also their dance was all aerobic gymnastics, which did not seem to relate to the court atmosphere which McGregor needed to be creating. Perhaps some of this can put attributed to whatever the requirements and working conditions were in Milan where the production originated.

But all in all this was a Dido where the pleasures were mainly musical. In addition to Connolly's Dido there as Lucy Crowe's superb Belinda, bright, clear and brilliant. Lucas Meachem's Aeneas looked that part but seemed a little stiff, though neither Purcell nor McGregor really gave him much to do. Sara Fulgoni made a genuinely creepy sorceress, rather than a guyed one and Iestyn Davies was luxury casting as the Spirit.

After the interval the look change as Bechtler produced a series of translucent drops, evoking the pastoral beauties of the landscape lived in by Acis and Galatea. The opening chorus was danced with the singers invisible off stage, always an annoying event. I like to see the singers even if they are not required to act. The dancers all wore customised all-in-one leotards making them look unclothed and emphasising the fine lines of many of the bodies. Even if you didn't like Handel, this was a good evening provided you liked pert bottoms.

I must confess that Danielle de Niese and I have got off to a bad start. I first saw her live in David McVicar's Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne (though we saw it at the Proms). I hated on sight the Bollywoodisation of Cleopatra's arias; I felt, and still feel, that this does not work emotionally and that we never really take Cleopatra seriously. That said, you can't fault de Niese for her ability to sing coloratura and dance. (Though Lisa Milne did similar when she played Morgana in the McVicar Alcina at ENO).

So Acis and Galatea was another opportunity to reassess de Niese. She came on wearing an ugly blond wig with a plait (one reviewer said it looked as if she was channelling Heidi). Not only was the wig ugly, but its flaxen blond colour was just not flattering to de Niese's complexion.

De Niese has a noticeable vibrato which gives her voice a rich, luxurious feel; you can understand why she plays sexy parts. She can do the complicated passagework, but it does not have the pinprick sharpness that I think it requires in this role. Many reviewers have compliments about her performance, but for me it seemed lacking. I longed to hear someone like Lucy Crowe in the role, she has the sort of bright, crisp delivery that I like (AND she can do sexy, just look at her Poppea in the ENO Agrippina).

Each singer got an attendant dancer to shadow them, so that even though de Niese trained as a dancer she was required, mostly, to be stationary whilst her shadow partner moved. This left one wondering where to look.

Acis was played by Charles Workman who looked the part. I found myself, however, less in tune with his voice. He sang with admirable firmness, but there was a quality in the voice which made it seem as if his voice was about to crack. I felt that his vocal quality would be ideal in later music, notably 19th century, but that he was not ideal in Handel.

Costumes were modern, as if the cast came in their street clothes. But this meant that Paul Agnew's Damon looked as if he had wandered of the set off Last of the Summer Wine. Agnew seemed luxury casting as Damon.

Matthew Rose has largeness of physique to play Polyphemus and he has the largeness of personality as well. Add to this a fine Handelian technique and I found that it was Rose's performance which I enjoyed the most. You felt profoundly sorry for the monster as he set his few treasures out only for Galatea to dismiss them.

There was another problem with the staging - its sheer busyness. We had both singers and dancers on stage all the time. And though McGregor's choreography was more plastic than in Dido, the results were sometimes overly busy. He seemed to need to fill every moment, and didn't trust Handel's music or really give it space.

Acis and Galatea is a masque, so its not the most dramatic of piece. Staged in such a hyperactive way, there were moments in the middle when the tempo simply sagged and you wished that McGregor had staged it in a more austere, less decoratorly fashion.

Musically things were in the safe hands of Christopher Hogwood with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment, though I did wonder whether a few more instrumentalists might have made a richer sound in Covent Garden's cavernous acoustics.

So, all in all, not an ideal evening. But one that piqued one's interest; I would be happy to give a revised version of the show another go.

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