Opera Review | Dido and Aeneas

In staging Henry Purcell’s ‘anomaly’ of an opera Dido and Aeneas, the Teatru Manoel Youth Opera have found a more than adequate platform for their emerging talents, according to BETTINA BORG CARDONA

Caravaggesque: The final scene from Dido and Aeneas performed by the Teatru Manoel Youth Opera and the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble at Teatru Manoel on October 11 • Photo by Ray Attard
Caravaggesque: The final scene from Dido and Aeneas performed by the Teatru Manoel Youth Opera and the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble at Teatru Manoel on October 11 • Photo by Ray Attard

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is something of an anomaly. Not only is it the English composer’s only ‘full opera’ (that is, entirely sung with no spoken dialogue), but, despite its contemporary popularity, it was never performed in public during the composer’s lifetime. Indeed, very little is known about the opera’s early performance history.

Speculation abounds regarding the reason for its composition, while the only existing copy of the musical score is at least three times removed from Purcell’s original.

The obscurity of the opera’s beginnings has allowed for a great deal of flexibility in terms of its staging, casting and interpretation. While the libretto (thankfully, a relatively early one survives) suggests that all the Baroque trappings of spectacle and transformation could potentially be employed in its performance, it actually requires little more than a small orchestra of strings, a four-voice chorus and handful of soloists. This opera exposes the beating heart of the baroque: an emphasis on the expression of the text and its emotions.

Taking on the great tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage was therefore no small feat for the young singers of the Teatru Manoel Youth Opera, supported by the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble (VIBE).  

The opera is contained, coming up at just over an hour, yet what it lacks in length, it makes up for in emotional intensity. The great queen moves quickly from wistfulness in the opening scene, to an all too brief happiness in being united with her love, Aeneas, and finally to tragic despair by her death at the end of the piece. Dido and Aeneas therefore requires both technical virtuosity and considerable emotional depth.

The set was notably simple: a few props evoking the atmosphere of ancient Carthage. Against this backdrop, the dramatic costuming of Spanish artist Sofia Lasserot, the swathes of fabric adorning the costumes echoed during some very effective moments of staging, becoming in turn both bower for the lovers’ brief tryst, and later death canopy erected over the queen’s lifeless body.

Voices took centre stage during this production of Dido and Aeneas. The first known performance of Purcell’s opera was at a boarding school for young gentlewomen in Chelsea, and femininity remains integral to the piece, the casting being predominantly female.

The role of Dido, originally scored for soprano, was sung by Marvic Monreal, whose full, rich mezzo aided in lending gravitas to the tragic figure. While still young, Monreal sang the role with impressive maturity, and her continuing studies can only serve to deepen her considerable dramatic and vocal abilities.

Christine Barbara sang the role of Dido’s maid Belinda on October 11 (Hannah Bonnici on October 9), the brightness of her soprano tone contrasting effectively with Monreal’s earthier Dido.

The sorceress, sung by Althea Troisi De Menville, felt unfortunately miscast. While possessing a lovely light and clear tone, the sweetness of her voice seemed more suited to a fairy creature than evil personified, losing some of the dramatic momentum. The two witches accompanying her, sung by Maria Eleonora Schembri and Francesca Buhagiar (Alison Gatt and Vanessa Camenzuli on October 9) were however a perfect pairing, their voices gliding and intertwining through some very difficult virtuoso passages with a beautiful ease.

The only male role, that of Trojan prince Aeneas, is considerably smaller than that of the female members of the cast, having prompted complaints in the past that he appears ‘psychologically underdeveloped’.

While the libretto may not do much to flesh out this particular character, Purcell’s music however tells a different story, as perfectly captured by Ivan Vella (Louis Cassar on October 9). Aeneas’ solo recitative at the end of the second act, in which he reflects on his decision to leave Carthage, was performed by Vella with the intense emotional expressivity of a man in turmoil.

The multi-talented 17-strong chorus also deserve a special mention here, working together harmoniously both in the clarity of their vocals and in their execution of some striking moments of choreography.

Teatru Manoel’s current approach, encouraging the collaboration of local artists with foreign professionals, appears to be yielding some pretty wonderful results. Teatru Manoel Youth Opera were directed by Jonathan Cocker, whose prior experience in directing this particular opera must have been invaluable, while, along with VIBE, they were led by British conductor Alice Farnham.

VIBE appears to be going from strength to strength under the guidance of various professionals, sounding the best I have ever heard them so far.

While this may perhaps be only the beginning of the journey for Teatru Manoel Youth Opera, the promise of great things to come shone through in some really special moments of performance. Dido’s famous lament at the climactic moment of the opera was one such instance, the entire cast converging around the queen’s lifeless body in a wonderfully-lit Caravaggesque tableau.

Malta has long had a love affair with opera, but it is wonderful to see a new generation engaging with more diverse performance periods. This production was truly a breath of fresh air.