DIDO IS DEAD A New Chamber Opera

Thu 11th June 2015

reviews

Robert Haylett

at 10:34 on 12th Jun 2015

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Utter desecration of an operatic artefact; wanton disregard for a celebrated masterpiece; a shameless, subversive parody of one of the Baroque period’s most cherished gems: yes, Rhiannon Randle’s second opera, 'Dido Is Dead!', is a triumph. The second and final performance in Trinity College Chapel showed an extremely accomplished work with not a few inspired moments – a diffuse but absolutely enjoyable half-hour of impressively performed opera.

Before the first downbeat, we see Helen Charlston’s Dido lying dead, or asleep, centre stage; her first gesture is to draw a chalk circle around herself, a macabre reminiscence (or is it an anticipation?) of Figaro with his marriage bed. Both of these elements set the tone for a piece that is set strangely outside time narrative and time historical, and – as the poor Queen is pushed outside of her circle – outside operatic tradition. Librettist Adam Cigman-Mark writes that he intended to fuse elements of camp and tragic expression to create something, not parodic, not faithful to tradition, but above tradition and commenting on its own existence. Whilst the musical setting ends up creating a far darker affair (and perhaps the less comic for it), the combination of various quotes of Purcell’s own Dido and Aeneas with a Birtwistlian inventiveness and a Brittenian unease, produces an intertextual dissection just as graphic and irreverent as the libretto (‘Cupid, an incontinent bébé’) and equally as authoritative.

The performance fostered many impressive moments, especially considering the rumours of last-minute cast replacements. Charlston was impressive in vocal range and expression, and the chorus members (divided into three antagonistic male and three slightly more sympathetic female singers) were strong, if at times slightly out of synch. David Lawrence and Olivia Bell shone through in particular. However, the fact that this performance followed one in Girton College Chapel, a more intimate space, was at times undesirably evident. The performers were arranged so that the orchestra was on the left and stage area on the right, meaning that half the orchestra were actually in front of the singers; add to this the fact that there were several instances where singers directed themselves away from the audience, and you are faced with a balancing issue that might be forgivable in Girton, but not in this larger space. It did not spoil the performance too much, but it was a shame to occasionally lose phrases, especially when each missed phrase is a sizeable chunk of a short work. I occasionally wondered whether a concert performance would be more effective; having said that, I found the strategical placement of singers around the chapel at the beginning unusually effective, and the procession (and first tutti entry) of the female chorus was a definite highlight.

Benedict Collins-Rice skilfully led a veritable smorgasbord of an orchestra (electric guitar, anyone?) through a challenging score. You could catch the musical spectres of George Benjamin and Shostakovich occasionally, but Randle’s score was unmistakably her own. The sound world was constantly shifting, ably accommodated by fine playing and expert leadership. Occasionally the music could feel slightly episodic, a series of short climaxes followed by suspense both musical and dramatic, but that meant that a thrilling moment was never far away. The fact that the opera was constructed in scenes was something apparent only afterwards, so perhaps I would have felt differently had I known before.

The evening was a display of impressive performative and compositional prowess from all concerned, and the flaws I have mentioned did not detract from what is a fantastic achievement for the composer. To produce an opera as a student is impressive; to produce two in as many years (and to publicise and fix performers for both) is astonishing. What came out was very much more ‘remember me’ than ‘forget my fate’, especially judging by the audience response; certainly, the piece bespeaks a composer that is clearly going places, and very deservedly too.

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