EIF: Dido’s Ghost

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Whatever happened to Trojan hero Aeneas after that calamitous chapter of his story related in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas? Part of the answer can be found in Ovid, or better still in Errollyn Wallen’s new opera Dido’s Ghost, which received its Scottish premiere on Friday by the Dunedin Consort at the Edinburgh International Festival.

We learn now that Aeneas’ previous departure from Carthage and the ensuing suicide of his lover Dido, was not the end of the affair. Now established in Italy, Aeneas is married to the high-maintenance Lavinia, but Dido’s sister Anna mysteriously appears, washed up as a refugee, reawakening the deceptions of the past and the dying curse that Dido issued against the Trojan race.

The magic of this opera has not simply been for Wallen, her song-writing librettist Wesley Stace and stage director Frederic Wake-Walker to carve out a straightforward sequel. Instead, they have taken the entirety of Purcell’s opera, positioned it as a flashback play within a play, and composed a narrative around it that reexamines the present in the context of the past in a bid to resolve unfinished business. 

The lattice of intrigues it creates is beguiling, and Wallen’s score plays its part in fully achieving that. To hand are the Baroque specialists of the co-commissioning Dunedin Consort, both its splendid period instrument band and hot-blended cohort of singers, from which soloists emerge to enact sundry bit parts.

To that, though, she adds percussion and electric bass guitar, used to juicy effect in defining the time shifts, as in the really cool bass riff that wrenches us from authentic Purcellian masque to smoky interjection by the jealous Lavinia. More subtle are the occasional Purcell quotes that Wallen couches in steamy jazz harmonies.

But it’s the holistic power of this concert-style production that is its winning card. Dunedin conductor John Butt masterminds a mostly slick musical performance, around which Wake-Walker’s cast weave a mesmerising theatrical tapestry, thanks to their cumulative energy and sharp characterisations.

Sopranos Golda Schultz and Nardus Williams are a potent double presence as Anna (doubling as Dido) and Belinda. As Lavinia, gritty mezzo soprano Allison Cook spits venom with unbridled  conviction, matched by the stentorian malevolence of Henry Waddington’s Sorcerer. Those secondary roles sung by chorus members, from the wacky witches to Aeneas’ dutiful son Ascanius (tenor David Lee), are every bit as vital.

At the emotional heart of Dido’s Ghost, however, is Matthew Brook’s towering portrayal of Aeneas, which, with Wallen’s and Stace’s evocative writing, invests in the character a human depth that Purcell opted not to explore to any great extent in his own opera. It’s Aeneas’ moment, and Brook laps it up. He even pinches Dido’s famous Lament, but with an interpretational twist that makes it very much his own. 
Ken Walton 

Image: credit Ryan Buchanan