Review of Reviews: Mitchell's After Dido convinces and confounds the critics

Critical perspectives on the latest London opera production

22 April 2009

Danielle de Niese Theatre director Katie Mitchell's latest experiment has inspired intriguing reflections from the British press. Her After Dido, a multimedia reconception of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas co-produced by ENO and the Young Vic, has received both utterly enthusiastic and less positive reviews.

Sam Marlowe of The Times is enthused by the lyrical effect of the ingenious multilayered form; he notes that 'far from diffusing the piece's emotional intensity, fragmentation intensifies it'. In addition, The Times praises the result of a production where everything is 'exposed' – lighting, camera work, sound effects. 'The film shots are not only beautifully composed, lit, and executed but the process happens in real time before our very eyes', The Independent's Edward Seckerson adds.

Interestingly, fellow theatre critic Michael Billington's views are diametrically opposed to Marlowe's. In The Guardian, he is negative about Katie Mitchell's extreme approach. Billington argues against the 'sensory overload' provoked by the choice of mixing so many expressive layers, and explains that 'the multiple modern narratives distract from, rather than illuminate, the music'.

For The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen, too, the mixture of the narrative psychodrama of contemporary tragedies and Purcell's work is 'clunkingly heavy-handed'.

The Guardian devotes an in-depth comment on this production. After Dido is a piece that relies strongly both on the theatrical and on the musical level – which is why, together with its theatre critic, The Guardian's music critic Tim Ashley contributed to the After Dido review.

Ashley problematises the interaction of multiple plots. In Mitchell's interpretation, three parallel contemporary life stories intertwine with Purcell's text and with the singers' actions. The result of this expressive burden is that, for Ashley, it places 'the relationship between stage and music under strain', especially because the emphasis on despair is never counterpointed by any different narrative mood, which is present in the score instead.

The Stage's comments are along these lines, although its critic George Hall focuses more on the lack of background information: 'we see four individuals in crises of loss and despair, their emotional states explored without much context for their obvious depression.'

Contrastingly, The Times praises the naivety and wit of the director's approach: 'Mitchell, aided by Leo Warner, the director of photography, brings us a many-layered interpretation of Purcell's opera in what has become the team's hallmark multimedia style'.

Seckerson, too, sees Mitchell's approach to the piece as a powerful and victorious one. In The Independent he comments that the 'workshop' quality of this production is 'one which gives it far reaching contemporary resonance whilst extending the role of its performers from the singularly re-creative to the multifariously creative with we the audience bearing witness to the entire process'.

Some of The Guardian's complaints are shared by the Evening Standard. Barry Millington writes that 'The sound effects [...] often interfere with the music', such as in Susan Bickley's delivery of her Lament and some of Aeneas' important lines.

As for the stage work, Millington also adds that 'The triple narrative is also potentially confusing'. And yet, overall, the same critic praises Mitchell's daring declination of Purcell's opera, and finds it an effective means of exploring this famous piece.

Danielle de NieseThe Guardian's comments on the vocal performance are less negative than the ones on the theatrical realization. 'Susan Bickley plays both Dido and the Sorceress, delivering Dido's arias with dignified intensity and inflecting the Sorceress's music with wonderfully understated malice'. For the same critic, Adam Green is not an equally convincing Aeneas, while Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson makes an 'elegant' Sailor.

The Telegraph's comments on Bickley's performance are positive too: she 'sings both Dido and the Sorceress with impeccable poise and clarity'. For The Times, the whole cast sang 'exquisitely' and Bickley's predominance was evident.

If some were enthused by Bickley's performance, she didn't manage to persuade others. For instance, The Stage is not thrilled: 'Sue Bickley, who doubles as Dido and the Sorceress - registers as a muted add-on and not as the heart of the evening'.

It was in particular Manley's interpretation that convinced the critics. The Evening Standard comments on her 'noteworthy Belinda'; The Guardian refers to the portrayal of her character as 'very gracious'.

The seven-piece ensemble, lead by Christian Curnyn from the harpsichord, was fundamental in this re-writing of the story. For The Times, the ensemble played 'with elegance and exuberance under Christian Curnyn'. The Guardian too, comments that the piece was 'Conducted with considerable refinement'.

But for the Evening Standard the purity of the orchestral delivery was impaired by the multimedia approach: 'The tonal purity of the small instrumental ensemble […] was also compromised'.

Is this elaboration of Dido's story 'Gorgeous', as The Times declares or overloaded, as The Guardian asserts? There's still time to find it out: After Dido runs at the Young Vic until 25 April.

by Marina Romani

Photo Credits: Stephen Cummiskey


Susan BickleyRelated articles:

Review of the production
CD Review Sarah Connolly as Dido (Chandos)
Review of Jenufa at WNO directed by Katie Mitchell featuring Susan Bickley
Review of Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House

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