In spite of several excellent performers on stage, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement's production of Dido and Aeneas - so promising on paper - turned out to be a disappointment to many of the audience.
The last few minutes of the performance - Sarah Connolly's magnificent rendering of Dido's farewell lament, followed by the beautifully sung final chorus - showed what a high quality performance we could have enjoyed without the unhelpful concept of the staging.
In theory, extracts from Christopher Marlowe's play Dido, Queen of Carthage were meant to be interwoven within the performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. In practice, the first half of the event seemed to have a great deal more Marlowe than Purcell, though the second half appeared to have more balance between the chosen musical and dramatic extracts. I suspect, though I admit to not being entirely sure, that Purcell's opera might have been shortened to make way for Marlowe.
Director Tim Carroll was not content with mixing Purcell and Marlowe. He added puppetry, as the main feature, for the whole of the mixed performance. Indeed, it was down to the puppets to enact the drama, whether spoken or sung. One can only guess if Carroll's idea of puppetry was a reference to the masque - that is, to a form of sixteenth-century courtly entertainment, involving arts of all kinds - or whether it was an idea taken and further developed from the English National Opera's productions of Madam Butterfly and Satyagraha respectively.
In ENO's - that is, Anthony Minghella's - production of Madam Butterfly, the little child Sorrow is a puppet which is skilfully manipulated by three puppeteers. In some sections of Satyagraha, huge - larger than life - puppets dominate the stage. These puppets, too, are tackled by a specialist skills-group.
In Tim Carroll's Dido for OAE, the puppets are permanent features. Indeed, the whole drama is performed by the puppets, all of whom have several sets of exquisite costumes. The movements of the puppets are controlled by their respective singers and actors. Thus the puppet Dido and the puppet Aeneas have two handlers each at all times: singer Sarah Connolly and actress Yolanda Vasquez handle Dido while singer Giles Underwood and actor Jonathan Oliver manipulate Aeneas. All singers, soloists as well as chorus, are dressed in simple black and all perform via puppets. The two Aeneas handlers also get to move a huge puppet at the beginning and at the end of performance. I can only guess that this giant puppet might represent Virgil who first related the story of Aeneas.
The singers performed near miracles. It is an enormous task to concentrate on puppetry while singing Purcell's masterpiece. Inevitably, the musical performance suffered. All eyes were on the puppets, which were manipulated to amazing dramatic effects. This scenario left the conductor (Steven Devine) pretty much conducting for himself. To allow space for the dramatic action, at least half of the small orchestra faced away from the conductor. Even though members of the OAE orchestra and chorus are excellent ensemble musicians, the staging worked against them. Puppeteering was particularly unfortunate for the very tall Giles Underwood: he spent most of the evening bending down to the puppet table (or to his fellow puppeteer, who was half his height) and this is how he had to sing Aeneas' passionate outbursts as well as lyrical lines. Shorter performers fared better.
During the Marlow excerpts - excellently delivered by Vasquez and Oliver - three theorbo players performed music which obviously did not come from Purcell's Dido but which was not mentioned in the programme notes. I was, therefore, greatly amused when the actress Dido declared: 'what music do I hear?'. What, indeed?
If you looked for spectacle and entertainment, you came away happy from the performance. If you were looking forward to Purcell's masterpiece in a high quality focused musical performance, you came away disappointed. I was among the latter.
By Agnes Kory