Dunedin Consort: Dido’s Ghost
This Mahogany Opera collaboration at the Barbican, with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and Chorale now also onboard as co-commissioners, is a radical step for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. Yes, it is built around a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is in the group’s familiar repertoire range, but composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have gone far beyond the original masque in creating a three-act contemporary opera where the music of Purcell, and the story he told, is just one element.
This is a concert performance, conducted by John Butt and directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, with elements of staging and the orchestra and chorus sharing the platform, and it works well in that form, even if the filming of it for the live stream is not of the high standard we have seen elsewhere during the pandemic. However, it is not difficult to imagine a fully-realised production, and it is desirable beyond argument that Dido’s Ghost becomes a repertoire work.
Wallen’s music ranges far and wide in its material. In what is the score’s best trick, and eventually the coup de theatre of the work, the famous Lament of the Queen of Carthage seems about to appear at many points before we eventually hear it. But the composer is not merely responding to the baroque era – there is jazz and blues in the mix as well, and the instrumentation ranges from Elizabeth Kenny’s lute and theorbo to Fender bass guitar, with a little Caribbean hand-pan tuned drumming in there as well.
Stace’s words are richly poetic, from the early image of a society “confused as bees without a queen”. Those words are sung by Isabelle Peters, who stepped up to the title role from covering it, following the withdrawal of South African soprano Golda Schultz. She is quite superb, in what is surely a career-establishing performance – but she is far from alone in filing a personal best.
Dunedin stalwart Matthew Brook has never been better than he is here, as Aeneas, his acting performance matching the nuance of hers, and his voice finding new areas of upper register gentleness. Nardus Williams as the supportive Belinda is also a powerful presence, and Scots mezzo Allison Cook is fearsome as Lavinia, with a voice to match her disturbingly Aleister Crowley-esque stage business.
The narrative, musically and theatrically, is compelling, and the underlying subject matter – guilt and its status as a feeling without a statute of limitations – could hardly be more appropriate for our times. Towards the end of the work, there is some gorgeous filmic writing for the strings before a virtuosic solo from Peters and then the sucker-punch appearance of that Purcell aria, succeeded by a lovely chorus and instrumental coda.
Structurally – and perhaps not intended at all – there are similarities between this profound new work, now on the road to Buxton and then Edinburgh, and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which will also have a star-studded concert performance at August’s Festival. Despite all that has happened this past year, the EIF’s 2021 opera programme is looking very exciting indeed.