A radio broadcast of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas given to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the composer's birth airs on a dreary night in London.
Henry comes home from work and listens as he considers how he and his partner Nell are on the brink of a separation. Elsewhere, Helen flicks on her radio as she contemplates suicide in her bedsit, and Anna, newly widowed, listens to her kitchen radio after a friend sends a newspaper clipping about the broadcast.
These four characters represent the different aspects of Dido and some of the listening experiences this work can inspire.
The stage looks like an Ikea showroom with the bedsit in one corner, Anna's kitchen beside it, and around the false partition Henry's study, each area containing an actor and a film crew. As the characters listen simultaneously, the singers film them and project images to a screen above the stage, cutting between domestic scenes as these Londoners are moved by Purcell's music. Memory is triggered, meals are eaten, drinks are drunk and letters are read, as segments of their lives are gradually exposed.
Katie Mitchell has been exploring the use of live video in her work since The Waves in 2006, which was the production that inspired John Berry from ENO to approach her about working in opera. The result, coming after four other productions of increasing technical complexity, was After Dido.
The genius of this event is that every aspect happens live. Indeed, Katie Mitchell said in her discussion afterwards that she felt live events were what made theatre so precious, and to use prerecorded images would have reduced her video-work to mere scenery.
But this is not simply a case of singers running around with six cameras and focusing on actors. To complicate the issue, some close-up shots are created by the singers themselves as they become hand and foot models allowing details to be seen without crowding the actors with the crew. Sound effects are also produced onstage with an area on one side where performers become Foley artists from time-to time: just a few seconds after her beautiful rendition of Dido's famous lament, for instance, Susan Bickley is seen stage right, folding and unfolding some fabric under a microphone. The planning and detailed skills needed to set up over 400 shots and effects in this way during a 70-minute performance is staggering and, in my opinion, a small triumph. Katie Mitchell and her team have created a visually and aurally stunning multimedia event that totally immerses the audience in the plurality of operatic experience and holds them spellbound throughout.
This lack of linear narrative suggests an invitation to construct personal pathways through the experience. One of the most thought-provoking aspects of this production is the close-up shots (re)created live by the singers. As Helen lays out her overdose of pills, a singer mirrors the shot in close-up on a props bench out front. To me this is a metaphor for Early music performance, since however hard we focus on reconstructing the details of Early music – the trills, temperament, pitch – the larger picture is always left open to interpretation by audiences. This reception can never be controlled and reconstructed.
From the side of the stage, Christian Curnyn seated at the harpsichord leads a wonderfully tight string section, with members of ENO's orchestra enhanced by a Viola da Gamba and lute for continuo and some sexy playing from David Miller on the baroque guitar. The singers are kept busy with their technical duties throughout the production but gather at various prominent positions for their solos. Susan Bickley is wonderfully expressive as both Dido and the Sorceress, finding quite different vocal colours for each role, and Adam Green displays a huge amount of energy as the Prince of Troy, Aeneas. Special mention is due also for the young artist Madeleine Shaw, whose delightful voice fills the space with ease and brings a dose of mischief to her role of First Witch. Unfortunately, some of the ensemble singing is slightly disappointing, but that is only to be expected so early in a run as complicated as this.
My only misgiving is that those who are not already familiar with Purcell's opera will miss some aspects of this production, since the present-day plot rather eclipses the original narrative. However, knowing the opera's story isn't essential in order to 'get' what is going on, though it does add another fruitful layer of understanding. Since this production is clearly intended to build bridges with younger audiences via the use of technology, I think that it ought to be very successful. However, the challenge won't be getting young people to enjoy this work but rather just getting them to come in the first place. Those of us who are not so young ought not to be put off by this intention; this is one of those instances when ENO is at its most inspired, and their partnership with the Young Vic and Katie Mitchell's team is simply not to be missed since they make the future of classical music suddenly seem very exciting indeed.
By Ed Breen
Photo Credits: Stephen Cummiskey
Opera Review: Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House
CD Review: Sarah Connolly as Dido (Chandos)
Opera Review: Dido with the Gabrieli Consort at Wigmore Hall
CD Review: Eccles' The Judgement of Paris (Chaconne)