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Reviews

<em>Dido and Aeneas</em>, Blackheath Halls Community Opera
17 Jul 2018

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Dido and Aeneas, Blackheath Halls Community Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Marcus Farnsworth (Aeneas) and Idunnu Münch (Dido)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Graham foregrounded Aeneas’ and Dido’s obvious physical passion as the Trojan Prince tussled with a vicious Sorcerer - a devil in a sharp grey suit who wooed wickedly and sought to win the Queen of Carthage for himself. The Sailor’s song - sung with delightful indelicacy by a swarthy Alun Butler - was a riotous celebration of imminent departure, goading the tinsel-bedecked Chorus to rowdily anticipate their arrival in the Italian capital: “Rome is Home” screeched the lofted banner.

Any doubts that Dido may have had about her fate would quickly have been dispelled from the start, by the sinister Spirits clad in silver-grey smocks who squatted on the floor around the Queen’s prone body, scribbling prophetic graffiti: “You are going to die”, “The Queen of Carthage is dead”, “Blood”, “Betray”, read the ominous chalk jottings, the twirling white script forming an ever-increasing spidery web on the black floor as the evening progressed. Graham suggests that the ominous words are no Delphic divination but rather the outer projection of Dido’s own, sometimes suppressed, consciousness, when she explains, ‘Our production is inspired by these words from the libretto, “Great minds against themselves conspire, and shun the cure they most desire”. The stage is Dido's mindscape. We see everything as a manifestation of her thoughts.’

And so, Dido’s depression and inner unrest at the start of the opera is projected through the storm with which we begin and which shipwrecks Aeneas and his people as they flee from Troy, after Jupiter’s commands to the Trojan Prince have boomed electronically and rather ear-splittingly across and around the Albany’s round theatre-space, sending the Trojans on their fateful journey to Rome. Elliot Griggs’ lighting conjured thunder and tempest, as the singers of Blackheath Halls Opera Chorus floundered noisily, desperately seeking the safety of the Carthaginian shore. The Choruses generally may not have been ‘crisp’ but they were hearty, well-tuned, and the words were clear.

Founded in 2007, this year BHCO has been forced to decamp from its familiar home - the Blackheath Halls are currently undergoing a £3 million refurbishment - to The Albany Theatre in nearby Deptford. The theatre-in-the-round, skirted by a narrow circle of seats at ground level and in the balcony, proved eminently suitable for Graham’s concept, providing a large space across with the chorus could present the opera through physical and visual gestures as much as through song and music.

And, the physical movement was energetic, noisy, and sometimes a little chaotic, as the Chorus gossiped and laughed, whooped and stamped - sometimes obliterating the buoyant dances which conductor Lee Reynolds was inspiring from the excellent small instrumental ensemble - and carried in and assembled the constituents parts of a banqueting table. But, the spirit was one of vigour and life. The community chorus ran energetically about the auditorium and up into the balcony, peering at the action from the gallery - and occasionally blocking the audience sight-lines! - as Graham sought to use every inch of the available space.

The professional cast were excellent, and it must have been inspiring for both the Conservatoire singers and the members of the community to sing alongside them. German mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch was the eponymous Queen, making her UK premiere after several years at Oper Stuttgart. Münch has a lovely rich voice, just perfect for passionate Queen of Graham’s conception; at first, I feared that she might misjudge the venue - her voice is large and she employed a very full vibrato in her first aria of despair, ‘Ah Belinda, I am prest with torment’, but she quickly found the measure of the acoustic and portrayed the Queen as a very ‘real’ woman, using every colour and nuance to win our sympathy. I’m not sure why this Dido seemed so shocked by her profusely bleeding wound given that it is self-inflicted, but Münch carried off Dido’s moments of delight and distress with equal dramatic conviction. ‘When I am laid in earth’ was truly touching, and the apparent resurrection of Dido’s spirit, as her prone body was strewn with red poppy petals by the children of the Chorus, was consoling.

Marcus Farnsworth was relaxed of voice and movement as the denimed Aeneas, though he took quite a battering from the pummelling fists of the children furious at his betrayal. Farnsworth and Münch conjured some credible regal ‘chemistry’, and he conveyed Aeneas’ honest love and subsequent confusion. Alison Rose’s lovely clean sound was a perfect complement to Münch, and she made Belinda a more supportive companion to the Queen than is sometimes the case, projecting beautifully when she sang from the balcony.

Only the descent of some wintery branches from the ceiling hinted at the arrival of the Sorcerer’s fearful voice from aloft. There was a touch of Britten’s Oberon when William Towers descended and set about luring the Queen into his sensual snare, particularly when, Pied Piper-like, the children joined his pack of witches, trailing behind their master - evil, masked acolytes. Towers’ microphone-assisted command, in the guise of ‘Mercury’, to Aeneas, to remind him of his destiny in Rome, was strange and sinister.

The students from Trinity Laban made impressive contributions, especially Sofia Celenza who exhibited vocal and physical poise in the role of the Second Woman.

Graham’s Dido may not have been quite what Purcell imagined when he conceived the opera for the genteel ladies of Josias Priest’s Chelsea boarding school (if that was indeed where the opera was first performed), but it was true to the work’s humanity, and performed with commitment and not inconsiderable charm.

Claire Seymour

Blackheath Halls Opera 2018: Purcell - Dido & Aeneas

Dido - Idunnu Münch, Aeneas - Marcus Farnsworth, The Sorcerer - William Towers, Belinda - Alison Rose, Second Woman - Sofia Celenza*, First Witch - Rebecca Leggett*, Second Witch - Jennifer Mitchell*, Spirits (Guste Sinkeviciute, Jude Smith, Laura Kislick, Leia Joyce, Stanislaw Kochanowski-Tym, Zarofina Farodoye), Sailor - Alun Butler, Chorus leaders* (Katy Allen, Jennifer Barwise, Emily Kirby Ashmore, Charlotte Levesley); Director - Polly Graham, Musical Director - Lee Reynolds, Designer - April Dalton, Lighting Designer - Elliot Griggs, Movement Director - Francesca Mangiacasale, Blackheath Halls Opera Chorus, Blackheath Halls Orchestra, Pupils from Charlton Park Academy, Royal Greenwich and Blackheath Halls Youth Choir.

Albany Theatre, Deptford; Monday 16th July 2018.

* Students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

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