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Elin Manahan Thomas
12 Jun 2015

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elin Manahan Thomas


The venue describes itself as ‘Part creative community, part arts venue … a non-profit space for creativity and culture in the heart of East London’: ‘High above Great Eastern Street, atop the venue, four recycled Jubilee line train carriages and shipping containers make up the creative studios of Village Underground’ — but for this performance (part of the Spitalfields Festival) by the Armonico Consort and soloists, under the direction of conductor/harpsichordist Christopher Monks, we were located in the main auditorium, a ‘renovated turn-of-the-century warehouse primed for everything from concerts and club nights to exhibitions, theatre, live art and other performances’.

It’s not a very ‘opera-friendly’ auditorium: although one might expect the warehouse to offer helpful reverberation, the high roof sucks up the voices and the T-shaped configuration and absence of raked seating makes it a challenge for the singers to project and communicate. But without undue theatricals the cast, attired in modern evening dress, engaged our attention throughout, aided by energised and colourful instrumental support from the players of the Armonico Consort.

Christopher Monks — musical director and founder of the Armonico Consort — evidently had a clear conception of what he wanted, what was possible given the constraints, and of how to achieve his aims. He whipped the action along at a cracking pace — which did sustain dramatic interest but was not always in the best interests of his singers (the h’s in the ‘Ho, ho, ho’ chorus were entirely lost) — and moved easily between the various tempi and time signatures. Monks urged his players and singers to robust, carefree joy in the chorus, ‘Fear No Danger to Ensue’ — although I’d have liked more rhythmic bite and spring in the dotted rhythms of ‘To the hills and vales’ to complement the vivacious baroque guitar of Robin Jeffrey — and created a sense of spaciousness in ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ (for Belinda and Chorus). Monks sought to exaggerate instrumental colours but occasionally this was less successful, for example in scene II, ‘The Cave’, where the dark, resonant bass upset the balance which would allow the harmonic dissonances above to tell.

The cast — the two principal roles were supplemented by members of the chorus — were unfailingly committed and engaging, if varied in their levels of vocal accomplishment.

Elin Manahan Thomas, as Belinda, struggled to project: her soprano was worrying unsupported, the tone was often quite thin, ornaments approximate, and she sounded anxious (and not just because of her fears for her mistress). Perhaps this was why Eloise Irving, taking the roles of the Second Woman, the First Witch and the ‘Spirit’ was assigned some of Belinda’s lines? Irving has a vibrant tone and presence, but she did tire (the Spirit’s trills were rather lacklustre) and found it a challenge to find a distinct vocal colour for each of the three different roles. But, overall, her performance and sustained focus were admirable.

Countertenor William Towers was a Sorceress of the hooty kind and his diction was poor; perhaps he was over-compensating in order to project for in the final chorus, as he faced one section of the audience, I found his singing much more moving and expressive. Penelope Appleyard (singing from the score) rose from the chorus to join Irving in duets for the First and Second Witch; her stringent cackles and snarls may well have been dramatically apt but they gave little clue as to her vocal capacities.

Robert Davies Aeneas was pleasant of tone but made little vocal or dramatic impact (this is not entirely his fault given that the role is underdeveloped — a consequence, perhaps, of the context of the first performance in that the opera was presented by a girls’ school). But the somewhat woolly melodic runs, the approximations ‘covered’ by a wide vibrato, and the lack of yearning lyricism did inhibit the characterisation and the dramatic tension that might be established between Aeneas and Dido.

Lloyd.pngRachael Lloyd

As Dido, Rachael Lloyd was in a class of her own. In her first aria, ‘Ah, Belinda, I am press’d with torment’, Monk’s precipitous pace made it hard for Lloyd to convey the depth of Dido’s suffering (the plaintive lament of the ground bass felt rushed and the extraneous vocal ornamentations sounded frivolous and superfluous), but Lloyd’s dark, vibrant lower register was still expressively provocative and theorbo player, Jeffrey, offered a beguiling accompaniment. Subsequently, Lloyd coloured the arioso most intelligently and her diction was excellent. She rose to expressive heights in the opera’s closing stages — ‘But Death, alas, I cannot shun;/ Death must come when he is gone’ — and the revered lament was controlled and focused, even if the line and phrasing did not feel entirely settled and the repetitions of ‘Remember me’ did not quite conjure a penetrating insistence.

The Chorus, processed in and exited as a chain of ‘blind’ prisoners, each connected to his partner by a hand upon the shoulder. The choral tone was appealing and, singing one voice to a part, they made the movements of the inner lines clear. There were some surprises too: just as we expected tenor Matthew Sandy to launch into the First Sailor’s shanty, ‘Come away, fellow sailors, come away’, we found violinist Miles Golding in full voice, and following his vocal exhibition with a surprisingly vigorous string rendition with his baroque bow.

So, this wasn’t an ‘ideal’ Purcellian performance, but it was an honest and entertaining one. The Underground’s clientele were appreciative, Monks was eloquent in introducing his endeavour to the audience, and much pleasure was had by performers and listeners alike. Perhaps next time we’ll venture into one of those Jubilee Line carriages …

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Belinda: Elin Manahan Thomas, Dido: Rachael Lloyd, Aeneas: Robert Davies, First Witch/Second Woman/Spirit: Eloise Irving, Second Witch: Penelope Appleyard, Sorceress/Stage Director: William Towers; Christopher Monks: conductor, Armonico Consort (Matthew Golding and Ben Sansom: violins, Nichola Blakey: viola, Natasha Kraemer: cello, Andrew Durban: double bass, theorbo: Robin Jeffrey), Chorus (Penelope Appleyard, Eloise Irving, William Towers, Matthew Sandy, Robert Davies). Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2015, Village Underground, Shoreditch, London, Tuesday 9th June.


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