There are times when a reviewer has to deal with a controversial artistic experience upon which colleagues can have very different opinions. Such a case is undoubtedly the version presented by Sasha Waltz of Purcell´s "Dido and Aeneas" at the Colón. The famous fault ("grieta") also applies to culture.
Some background first. "Dido and Aeneas" was written by Henry Purcell in 1682 and is recognised as the initial English opera. Other famous scores of the greatest Baroque composer of his time and place are considered semi-operas and have been seen here, such as "The Fairy Queen" and "King Arthur", in very good historicist versions.
Here "Dido..." was premièred in 1953 with first-rate local singers and the knowledgeable conducting of Felix Prohaska, organized by that admirable institution, Amigos de la Música. The Colón gave a notable presentation in 1978, with the talents of Steuart Bedford (conductor), Michael Geliot (producer), Roberto Oswald (stage design) and Aníbal Lápiz (costumes) and good Argentine singers. The 2002 revival was much less stylish. At the Colón the 50-minute "Dido..." was coupled with another short opera; I liked the choice in 1978, the première of Busoni´s "Arlecchino". And this year, after 24 years, the most adequate historicist coupling would have been John Blow´s "Venus and Adonis" (1681), although it´s a masque (a semiopera).
Of course, "Dido..." has been profusely recorded (at least 25 times), and with such varied Didos as sopranos Flagstad, De los Ángeles, Kirkby, and mezzos Veasey, Von Otter, Baker. And almost all the Baroque specialist conductors. It certainly isn´t the only time that Dido was an opera heroine: there are about fifty operas on her, starting from Cavalli´s in 1641. But only Purcell´s and "Les Troyens à Carthage" (second part of "Les Troyens") by Berlioz have survived. (A reminder that we urgently need the première of "Les Troyens").
The text is by Nahum Tate and is based on Virgil´s "Aeneid", and the opera was premièred not at a theatre but at the School for young girls of Josiah Priest at Chelsea. In three short acts it tells of Aeneas´ arrival to Carthage fleeing from Troy, the love of Carthage´s Queen Dido and Aeneas, his departure called by Jupiter to found Italy (but in Tate´s libretto it´s a farce for Jupiter is an apparition manipulated by witches bent on mischief), and Dido´s death from grief.
The music alternates recitatives with arias, dances and choruses, and the characters include Belinda (Dido´s sister), a Sorceress, two Witches, a Sailor, a Lady and the Apparition, plus the chorus (courtisans, witches and sailors). Time passes quickly with such beautiful sounds. The most famous piece is Dido´s lament on a ground, "When I am laid in earth".
But Purcell´s "Dido..." got what is now called an intervention, when choreographer Sasha Waltz in 2005 decided that she would wrap around Purcell´s opera a fantasy of her own. And so the 50 minutes became 95, the extra 45 veering between more Purcell extracted from various sources, read poetry or utter silence (only dancing). The hand programme specifies "Revision by Attilio Cremonesi". ¿Does that include a change for the worse, converting the "sisters" into men? It´s a blot on the otherwise historicist version of the score.
Waltz introduces a Prologue in which Phoebus, the Sun God, in the company of Nereids, extols the arrival of Venus (spoken scene, poorly read). Then they dive into the "sea", a rectangular water tank; for quite a while we see rather beautiful aquatic choreography, that however has nothing to do with the plot. The exhibition of naked behinds as they climb out of the tank is quite superfluous. And then the opera starts, though it will be interrupted several times by extraneous matter.
Waltz´s main idea is to duplicate each soloist singer with a dancer or two, so that theoretically the story is simultaneously told in two means of expression. It might have worked if the narrative had been intelligible, but it isn´t: the story is continuously veiled by groups that often make it hard to distinguish who is singing (especially in the case of Aeneas, I spotted him aurally, for Reuben Willcox has a powerful voice, but he was always lost in surrounding people).
I found particularly galling a silly dance lesson in French and English (untranslated) and with no connection whatsoever with the plot. On the other hand, whilst there is a brief change of scene a boy or a girl executes a charming dance seen against the light. The crucial scene of the witches is badly mauled by the transformation into men and inadequate singers.
To accentuate the positive: Christopher Moulds conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Academy for Old Music) got excellent historicist playing with authentic phrasing and speeds. And the Vocalconsort Berlin not only is a fine chamber choir but it moves with agility whenever it is needed (probably the best part of Waltz´s producing work).
Aurore Ugolin was a correct Dido (much more can be expressed), whilst Debora York showed her affinity with the Baroque style. As intimated, Willcox was the best of the cast for he sings expressively.
The dancers do well what they are asked, but the choreography rarely attracted me. An ugly wall was the scenery for the Palace and for the hunting scene...And the costumes gave us men in beige underpants or women in lurid colors.
For Buenos Aires Herald