Dido and Aeneas / Acis and Galatea - Royal Opera House, 31 March 2009
It was uncharacteristically brave of the Royal Opera House to unleash a choreographer (Wayne McGregor) and the forces of the Royal Ballet on a pair of operas, but it turned out to be a surprisingly successful experiment.
Perhaps not so brave, actually - his Dido and Aeneas had already aired at La Scala. It was the less bold of the two, conventionally staged against a minimal, monumental set, with precisely-drilled dancers doing little more than filling in the gaps between the singing. That it never really got up any steam dramatically is a problem lying partly with Purcell's now fragmentary score, much of which has been lost over the centuries. But the dancing, which could have been used to paste the scraps together, instead seemed to emphasise the disjunctions.
But there was some fine singing, especially from Sarah Connolly as the tragic Queen Dido and Lucy Crowe as her spirited maid Belinda. Iestyn Davies made an impressive Covent Garden debut too, singing sweetly from above through the hole in the roof. Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza made a striking pair of conjoined-twin witches - a coup de théâtre that unfortunatly served mostly to emphasise the dry formalism of all around it.
The way Christopher Hogwood and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment fleshed out the score emphasised the sheer originality in Purcell's writing.
Tunes were more to the fore in Acis and Galatea - which includes some of his best ones, like Love in her eyes sits playing, Love sounds th’alarm and the charmingly silly Happy we!
The simple pastoral nymph-meets-shepherd tale was garnished with stuffed sheep and tangled branches, and some all-too-rustic singing as well. The title roles grated under the foghorn tenor of Charles Workman and Danielle de Niese's unwieldy vibrato. Matthew Rose as Polyphemus and Paul Agnew as Damon coped with Handel's demands far more gracefully.
But why couldn't the ROH use British singers for the principal roles too? - it's not as if they're thin on the ground. Kate Royal not only sings ten times better than de Niese, she's an accomplished dancer too - and the list of great English tenors, starting with John Mark Ainsley and Mark Padmore, just goes on and on.
Perhaps it was just as well that the dance element was more prominent in this half of the evening. Each singing role, including the chorus, had a dancing double, a soul perhaps, expressing the feeling behind the words. Dancing Acis and Galatea (Ed Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson) entwined in sinuous and utterly entrancing pas-de-deux. Behind the lumbering Polypheme was his exquisitely graceful alter-ego Eric Underwood. The dancers' nudey body stockings - part alien, part newborn - emphasised both their vulnerability and their other-worldliness.
It was all too easy to forget this was an opera and concentrate on the movement - more fluid and literally expressive than McGregor's other work, but stamped with his trademark quirky articulations. It was certainly more compelling than the curiously static singers and their fugly costumes (drag-queen Heidi for de Niese, shaggy tramp for Workman). De Niese did at least redeem herself in a beautifully-executed closing dance with Ed Watson, an emphatic reminder that this production is at heart a dance piece with singing tacked on.
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