The Telling of a Tale Of Love and Sorrow

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Wiener Festwochen: producer Deborah Warner creates a kaleidoscope of scenes

On The Town | Susan Doering | June 2009

From left to right: Lina Markeby, Malena Ernman and Judith van Wanroij in Dido and Aeneas at Museumsquartier Halle E (Photo: Ruth Walz)

In 1689, shortly after having presented it at court, Purcell permitted his opera Dido and Aeneas to be performed by the "young gentlewomen" of a school in Chelsea which was run by the ballet master Josias Priest. Following the musical fashion of Restoration England, Purcell had written nearly a dozen dances into the one-hour score, so it is not surprising that Priest considered the piece an excellent choice for his young protégés to try out their terpsichorean talents.

Deborah Warner’s acclaimed production from the 2006 Vienna Festival, with Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, was well worth inviting again for this year’s Festival, picking up this interesting titbit of music history and framing the story of Dido’s love and sorrow with this early school production.

As the audience take their seats in Halle E at the Museumsquartier May 23, the stage is abuzz with schoolgirls in gymslips running around doing pretty much what English schoolgirls did and still do in between lessons. After break is over, they are called to their duties and the Prologue of the play can begin.

At the same time, workmen, seemingly stage hands, haul banners and lines, apparently busy getting ready for the production. These then reveal themselves in a later scene to be nothing other than the Trojan sailors from Aeneas’ fleet. Thus Warner creates a fluid continuum of times and allusions, akin to a film technique, painting a kaleidoscope of scenes and analogies, all woven into the eternal theme of love gained and lost.

The story of the proud Queen of Carthage and her inexorable love for the young Trojan hero that will lead to her death is the story told originally by Virgil in the Aeneid. It was adapted by Nahum Tate in his libretto for Purcell, and is here re-worked and presented in an almost Brechtian, didactic manner. Look here, Warner seems to say, we are telling you the story of Dido and Aeneas, of their love and how that love was lost. And we are telling you that this story has been told many times over and in many different ways.

Every facet of the production is subjected to this approach. For example, Warner introduces a new Prologue, delivered in an emphatic, spoof tragedienne style by Fiona Shaw, which combines three poems: Ted Hughes’ Echo and Narcissus, T.S. Eliot’s A Game of Chess, and Yeats’ He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Echo’s painfully doomed love for Narcissus resonates in the bitter words of the dialogue in Eliot’s poem – the one voice calling out in vain for love and understanding, while the other’s thoughts are on death and despair. The void between the two people can not be crossed. The final Prologue text speaks of the illusion of love and desire, for they are nothing but dreams, leading in to the telling of the tale proper.

It is an intellectual rather than emotional approach, providing the audience with a commentary and a fresh view on this well-known work. The dance scenes are largely ignored (no longer in fashion), and the focus shifts to the drama and scenic representation of the action.

The drama is carried above all by Dido herself, here sung by the Swedish soprano Malena Ernman in a deep, at times almost husky timbre. She is a woman shocked by her own propensity for passion and finally devastated at how, as she believes, she has allowed herself to be seduced and then deceived. Ernman was well supported by her first lady-in-waiting and confidante, Belinda, confidently sung by Judith van Wanroij, who managed to convey the humanity of her role.

Luca Pisaroni as Aeneas certainly looks the part, but the fairly thin material of his role would need more courage both vocally and dramatically for us to understand the psychological shifts in the character. When Aeneas is called away from Carthage and his love by the Sorceress’ ruse – who sends one of her own disguised as Mercury to tell him Jupiter orders him to leave for Troy immediately – Pisaroni does not reveal any emotional struggle within. The orders of the god must be obeyed, and his regrets are soon overcome.

In Warner’s production, it is the Sorceress and her two witches who provide the strongest foil to the idyllic scenes of courtly love. The Welsh contralto Hilary Summers throws herself heart, body and soul into an interpretation of the Sorceress that can only be compared to that of the Dame in pantomime.

Whereas the Dame is always played by a man in women’s clothes and, as the "villain of the piece", gets both the most boos and the most laughs, the Sorceress here is a woman whose habits and gestures are masculine. With a devilish red wig and a rumbustious, cigarette-smoking swagger, she is a vulgar pastiche of a witch, cocking her snook at gods and audience alike.

It was a wonderful performance, which Summers herself clearly thoroughly enjoyed, made all the more riveting by her complete vocal command of the part. In a piece like this, which is so well known and which, with all due respect, although lovely as a whole, does not have any particularly memorable passages, it is exactly this kind of interpretation which makes a production stand out from the ordinary. Her wiles and schemes were supported with malicious glee and some fine slapstick by Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans as the two Witches.

The music, yes, Les Arts Florissants with William Christie at the harpsichord, delivered in true style, reaffirming their first-class world reputation. Christie held the pace and supported his singers in every way. The instrumental passages (which Purcell wrote for the dances) had an especially sparkling quality. The chorus deserves a special mention. Dressed largely in black shirts and jeans they provided a contrast to the sumptuous baroque costumes worn by Dido and her train and Aeneas, and as such were the quintessential chorus, taking on the roles of courtiers, sailors, and commentators as required. Their delivery was perfect.

The production was thus a delight, and the first-night audience, a mixture of Viennese premiere habitués in smart sequins and Festival-goers in shirt sleeves, loved it.

Other articles from this issue