Sydney Festival review: Dido and Aeneas

Sasha Waltz’s production of Dido and Aeneas is a breathtaking visual spectacle. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

One thing is for sure – the first performances of Henry Purcell’s baroque masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, currently playing at the Sydney Festival, would have been seen in a far less spectacular, and challenging, setting than that at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre.

German choreographer Sasha Waltz’s production opens with two couples atop a transparent tank of water, suddenly plunging into the water followed by several others who all continue to cavort and splash as the music commences.

Taking the plunge

The Prologue of Dido and Aeneas. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

This image is central to the publicity that has accompanied the production around the world, and is a visually bold moment of lithe sensuality linking it directly to a central conceit of Purcell’s work – the mysterious stranger Aeneas has arrived in Carthage by sea and it is to sea he will return to found Rome – an image with several nods to Freud on the way. It acts as an effective prologue to the performance of Dido.

The first documented performance of Dido was at Josias Priest’s School For Girls in London in the summer of 1688, a seemingly most unlikely setting for what is regarded as the first great English opera.

Fittingly, in terms of Waltz’s production, Priest was a dancing master and dance would have been central to what was taught at the school. Dido is Purcell’s only theatrical piece calling for singing throughout – most of his extant pieces are hybrid theatrical works.

A woman, deserted and alone, is a persistent operatic trope owing much to mythology, and Dido’s final lament – “When I am laid in Earth” – is one of the most frequently performed and recorded arias in all opera, often used in a variety of non-operatic contexts.

Like much early opera, there is no manuscript of Dido in Purcell’s hand, and a variety of versions have been performed over the years. The musical resources called for are relatively sparse, making the work attractive to small-scale opera groups, and its wide and rapidly-changing range of musical textures, tempi and mood offer scope for potential adaptation into different genres.

Waltz’s extraordinary hybrid

Waltz’s version premiered in Berlin in 2005 and has been seen in several other cities and has been released on DVD.

Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

The central characters of the opera are portrayed by both a singer and a dancer, and while this set-up is not uncommon in operatic stagings, it can be problematic in terms of audience focus as well as narrative continuity; somewhat confusingly Dido is doubled by two dancers, but colour-coded costumes frequently aid identification. Waltz brilliantly integrates the chorus among the dancers – no easy feat.

So does this particular staging bring anything new to the work? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

To remove the work from the sometimes precious clutches of so-called “authentic” production certainly reinvigorates it, providing a fresh perspective.

The musical aspects of the work are very well served by the Akademie für Alte Music Berlin, and the Vocalconsort Berlin, with excellent soloists at perfect ease in this music.

The balance between stage, pit and audience was good despite the less than ideal acoustics of the theatre, with complete control of his forces by conductor Christopher Moulds. The stylish clarity, warmth and precision of the playing is a particular highlight of the performance.

An exhilarating spectacle

Opera has always thrived on spectacle, including elaborate dance elements, and Waltz’s production is often visually breathtaking and exhilarating, occasionally almost bursting the frame of Purcell’s small-scale opera.

Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Although largely constructed of set pieces, opera is fundamentally a narrative art with music providing access and interiority. We travel on an emotional journey with the characters, even if the action is static, and this is perhaps an aspect of Waltz’s production where one might have some reservations.

Dance is notoriously ill at ease with narrative, and while the individual scenes are strikingly vivid, often suggesting fascinating potential scenarios, they sometimes do not seem directly connected to the central emotional thread of the work. But there is an accumulative emotional logic, so that even a disconnected scene such as what appears to be a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party which morphs into a highly self-referential and amusing dance lesson, all contribute towards the poignancy of the final moments of the work, much as the comedic elements do in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

While the lovers are sometimes obscured by the continual wash of figures on the stage, all is amply redeemed by the frequent beauty of the images created jointly by the athletic dancers and physically and vocally versatile chorus singers.

But it is the final image of two Didos – Aurore Ugolin (singer), and Michal Mualem (dancer) – entwined in their floor-length, seaweed-like hair, thus consumating the water-based arc of the production, which packs the greatest emotional punch. This ravishing moment is, of course, Dido’s lament, where the plangent sound of the un-amplified human voice – the fundamental essence of opera – is triumphant.

Dido and Aeneas is playing at the Lyric Theatre until January 21 as part of the Sydney Festival. More details here.

Visit the University of Sydney’s festival hub here.