Review: Dido and Aeneas

Image credit: Sidney Sussex Music Society

The composition date of Dido and Aeneas (premiered by 1689) and the Baroque style of Sidney Sussex Chapel were a happy congruence; this excellent production was given in a space appropriately beautiful and sombre. For the quality, much praise must go to Marcus Ellis. He directed the cast intelligently, drawing detailed and affecting performances, a considerable achievement in an opera as stylised as this one. 

However, the atmospheric setting restricted the staging possible; there are only so many ways for a chorus to process in and out. Overall, it may have been better off as a concert performance rather than semi-staged, especially with performances this strong. The staged touches were generally distracting and unnecessary – Dido’s tiara added little and Aeneas’ sword was obtrusive, although the witches’ masquerade masks worked very well. 

On the opening night, musical director and conductor Oliver Pickard drew a generally attractive and impressively full sound from the small orchestra, although there were persistent problems with tuning. Harpsichordist Jim Cooper and cellist Rachael Kennedy provided a supple and sensitive continuo. The chorus were a particular highlight of the evening: they produced a beautiful sound and both they and Pickard should be congratulated for the pains taken with precise articulation, dynamics and diction. Musical ornaments were tasteful and appropriate, giving the music variety without distorting it.

All solos were well-taken. Maia Béar, as Dido, showed a pure voice with lovely dusky undertones, and gave a nuanced and developed performance in a role which could easily be flat or static. She recovered well from some small timing errors in her final aria and brought much pathos to the role. Belinda Eleanor Burke sang with agility and created a spirited and lively characterisation, and Amber Reeves Piggott as the Sorceress energised the stage with her infectiously sinister glee. Although all the cast had good diction, Burke and especially Reeves Piggott stood out for their use of the text. Tom Ashton dealt admirably with Aeneas’ demanding tessitura and his voice filled the space with ease, although his acting was less dynamic than that of the main women soloists. In the smaller role of Second Witch, Katie Kirschbaum revealed a beautiful dark voice.

Any flaws in the production were small. The performance was given admirable musical and dramatic commitment by all involved. Always well done, the quality and sincerity of the performers often elevated the evening to real excellence.

8/10

The opening night of Dido and Aeneas was conducted by Oliver Pickard: the second performance was conducted by fellow musical director Laurence Carden.

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