Plant 4 Bowden, Adelaide
October 2, 2018

Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (written in the 1680s) is relatively short at around an hour’s duration. And it is due to this that the work is often staged by students or in this case, students who form the effective chorus and musical ensemble. The soloists are generally chosen from rising vocalists – both local and interstate – making their names in baroque and operatic performance.

Artists from the Elder Conservatorium of Music in chorus roles. Photograph © Bernard Hull Photography

Presenting the opera in a post-industrial site proved advantageous, though rather than costuming the singers in simple classical robes, director Nicholas Cannon has again chosen to present it either in the present or future with a post-traumatic edge with costuming generally a ragbag of high-visibility vests, hard hats and detritus. Casting Aeneas post-Troy as a refugee would be understandable, however, the furnishing of Dido’s Carthage with sandbags and 44 gallon drums is rather inappropriate for the far more stable north Africa presented in Virgil’s Aeneid (on which the opera is based). Plant 4, the two-storeyed venue (a former electrical factory), was well utilised musically with the famed Echo chorus most appropriately caught by the choir. And while there may have been questions regarding the design of the piece, musically, there was little to criticise.

From the opening musical phrases, with those antique plangent strings setting the tone, it was apparent that conductor Luke Dollman knew Purcell, the master of the English baroque, well. Here was a string section which was clean, crisp and taut and the instrumental balance was excellent. The continuo players were beautifully tight with the harpsichord and the balance between vocalists and the orchestra presented no problems. The Elder Conservatorium’s playing was youthful and so intimately caught that individual choristers’ voice could be heard.

Kate Macfarlane, Bethany Hill and Raphael Wong. Photograph © Bernard Hull Photography

It was the record producer Walter Legge, I think, who rather wittily and yet accurately described Dido and Aeneas as “Tristan in a teacup”, but this was sung in a lighter, youthful and fresh manner which in turn reflected the age and experience of its participants. If there was a hero(ine) to the performance, Kate Macfarlane’s confidante and sister to Queen Dido must be singled out, carrying the action of the opera forward to its dour conclusion. Similarly Bethany Hill’s Dido is beautifully and affectingly sung culminating in the justly famous When I am laid in earth, wherein she had to contend with a natural thunder storm which added rather ironic strength to the Sorcerer’s spell designed to undo these ‘star-crossed lovers’. Here the audience had to lean to catch her voice, but in this matter, this Dido emerged a conqueror.

Raphael Wong’s hero was convincing to watch but his diction was a little indistinct at times given the clarity of the others. The sorceress – a true luxury in Elizabeth Campbell – was a transplant from Cannon’s previous production of the opera (Queen’s Theatre, 2017). She was also the sole cast member who was more traditionally costumed, but then, how would you clothe a post-apocalyptic witch? Mind you, her supporting coven looked more like rather plain office staff.

Settings aside, it is Purcell, the master of the chaconne, whose music survives. In fact, it does more than that under Dollman’s direction in this production – and it is the music ultimately that counts. Dido & Aeneas also makes an ideal introduction to live opera, so do take the chance to investigate the youthful and celebratory production of this seminal work.

Dido & Aeneas plays at Plant 4 Bowden in Adelaide until October 7


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