Review of Reviews: Handel and Purcell double bill at Covent Garden

Critical perspectives on the latest London opera production

5 April 2009

Danielle de Niese Generally positive and yet contrasting reviews have welcomed Covent Garden's latest production, a double bill including Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Acis and Galatea.

This event has also marked a rare collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, with Wayne McGregor creating the choreography for the two Baroque masterpieces.

In both operas presented at Covent Garden, the visual element was obviously central. Erica Jeal of The Guardian reflects on Dido and Aeneas' successful staging, and comments on the dynamic and balanced choreography: 'The dancers are sparingly employed as injections of energy', she says. '[T]hey don't pull focus from the singers, nor vice versa'.

Along the same lines, Barry Millington of the Evening Standard comments positively on both productions. Millington observes that they 'are unified by a strong choreographic element but provide the requisite contrast by darkening further the mood of Dido and Aeneas'.

Edward Seckerson's view is more nuanced, especially about Purcell's work: writing in the Independent, he appreciates the work of designers Hildegard Bechtler and Fotini Dimou, with their Japanese minimalist style and clean and well-defined lines. He develops further by stating that 'in perfect accord McGregor has his highly articulate chorus impeccably drilled down to the last turn of their collective heads'. Seckerson's final remark is that 'It's all very pure and passionless.'

As for Dido and Aeneas, The Guardian suggests that a smaller stage would have done more justice to the singers, writing that 'None of the patchy cast can get the words across with any immediacy except Sarah Connolly, whose long-overdue Royal Opera debut as the nervy queen is sung with sustained, inward intensity'. Neil Fisher of The Times is equally enthusiastic about Connolly's interpretation of Dido. Of her intense and sensitive relation with the pit, he says: 'The great both inevitable and unbearable; its sublime partner is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Christopher Hogwood, who play with grave authority'.

The Evening Standard too is generally satisfied with the vocal department, noting that 'If Lucas Meachem's unfocused timbre compromises his Aeneas, Sarah Connolly is an inimitable Queen of Carthage, regal in tone and bearing'. The Stage's George Hall, too, comments positively on Connolly's 'grand emotional challenge of Dido, with Lucas Meachem solid as the vacillating Aeneas and Lucy Crowe a cheerfully supportive Belinda'. The Telegraph is more balanced but still positive: 'Recovering from a throat infection, [Connolly] was not quite at her best in a tentative first scene, but struck gold with a heartbreaking account of "When I am laid". The sensitivity of her acting and her intense musicality was striking throughout'.

Most of the critics unanimously acknowledge Lucy Crowe as a thrilling Belinda. The Telegraph calls her 'delightful', while for the Evening Standard she is 'sparkling'. The Telegraph devotes a special note also to 'The young ad hoc chorus', whose performance was deemed to be deeply enjoyable.

In Handel's Acis and Galatea the intertwining of opera and ballet seems to be more problematic - as The Times puts it, 'McGregor is on trickier ground'. The Stage rightfully reminds its readers that some difficulties are inherent to the opera itself, since Handel didn't conceive it to be choreographed. Nevertheless, the same newspaper also adds that the combination of dancing and singing was less successful partly because 'McGregor generally separates the choreography from the rest of the staging'.

The Times also argues that there was a gap between the narrative space and the visual interpretation; and although Hogwood and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's rendition was gentle and appropriate, 'the poetic images they create are rarely done visual justice by generalised body language that spatially dominates but dramatically weakens'.

The Independent offers a different perspective, referring to Acis as 'a far happier marriage with singers, dancers, and players'. Its critic also adds that McGregor was effective in finding 'real purpose for his dancers, echoing, mirroring, the star-crossed lovers – Charles Workman and Danielle De Niese - like a physical expression of their innermost desires'.

The Telegraph's comments are more nuanced but positive, as Rupert Christiansen writes that 'In Acis, [McGregor] occasionally seems to be spinning the dance out by the yard to keep up with the prolix arias. But the stage picture is never less than alluring'.

On the vocal side, The Stage seems to have found the singers' work engaging: 'Charles Workman sings a vigorous Acis, Matthew Rose a menacing comic-grotesque Polyphemus and Danielle De Niese a sheer delight as Galatea, even throwing in some elegant dancing'.

De Niese's performance inspired contrasting opinions. The Guardian comments on her 'bright but bland Galatea sporting a straw-coloured wig'. The Times makes clear that her costume didn't suit her dramatic action: 'Gazing wistfully at the dancing, she looks oddly adrift, and her light soprano, while decorously applied, lacks something in bloom and weight'. The Evening Standard's remarks on De Niese's interpretations are along the same lines. Commenting on the other performers, its critic adds that 'The most stylish Handelian is Paul Agnew (Damon), followed by Matthew Rose (Polyphemus) and Ji-Min Park (Coridon)'.

The Telegraph writes that most singers conveyed effective portrayals of their characters: 'In Acis, Charles Workman and Danielle De Niese had bags of vocal and personal charm in the title roles, with strong contributions from Matthew Rose as Polyphemus and Paul Agnew and Ji-Min Park as attendant shepherds'.

As is evident from some comments above, Hogwood's rendition of the two works was generally praised for his ability to relate to the stage work. And yet, some perspectives are unenthusiastic. For instance, The Guardian is unsatisfied with his interpretation of Handel's work: 'Buzzy playing from the OAE can't make up for a lack of propulsion in Christopher Hogwood's conducting, even if his actual tempos are relatively speedy'. And whilst admiring Hogwood's understanding of the score in Purcell's opera, The Stage too is critical on the orchestral rendition of Handel: 'The broadly light-hearted tone is missed'.

On the other hand, The Telegraph appreciates the conductor's interpretation: 'Christopher Hogwood's conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment seemed to favour vigour and speed over refinement ­ the right choice in the circumstances, especially as Acis's delicate charm can become an awful bore if it isn't kept moving'.

It is evident that these two latest productions are open to contrasting viewpoints. Nevertheless, this rare collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, at Covent Garden until 20 April, is certainly an event to be celebrated and enjoyed.

by Marina Romani

Photo: Danielle De Niese


Danielle de NieseRelated articles:

Review of the productions
Interview with Sarah Connolly
Interview with Danielle De Niese
Review of Acis and Galatea at the London Handel Festival

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