After Dido ...
I used to complain that the obtrusive camera spoiled concerts. Audiences became unduly excited about 'being on telly' and concerts which were not destined for broadcast by the visual media were somehow inferior. In the current production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by English National Opera (ENO) and the Young Vic there are cameras all over the stage, transmitting the live action on to a screen above the proscenium arch.
The film however does not tell the story of Dido and Aeneas; that would be too easy. The action takes place in a drab, dingy flat somewhere in London. Purcell's opera comes out of a cheap radio, while the anonymous cast prepares a meal, lies depressed on a bed, washes up, sits listlessly at a desk, silently weeps real tears, or takes an overdose of sleeping pills at the moment Dido stabs herself.
Impressively, the actors are also the singers, the stage hands and the camera operatives. They sing the chorus numbers while fiddling with props and preparing for future scenes. One sees the faked reality on the screen and that reality faked on the 'live' stage below. This is an interesting, even engaging conceit at first but the novelty palls, the extraneous action, not to mention sound effects (everyone would have been livid if the audience had rustled paper bags over the music as the cast did) become an irritation and one longs for the straight unencumbered rendition. Susan Bickley sings Dido's Lament while being upstaged by someone setting up a camera. This is no way to treat the world's favourite Baroque aria.
The singing is good but one imagines it could be better without the all-too-clever staging, which was used incidentally for February's production of Blow's Venus and Adonis at Wilton's Music Hall. Concentrating on their duties - which is not the same as choreography - the singers' ensemble is poor at the entry to 'Cupid Only'. Bickley is in authoritative form, like a mother hen surrounded by eager chicks. Among these are Katherine Manley as a bright-toned, compassionate Belinda and Madeleine Shaw an enchanting First Witch. Adam Green is a warm baritoned Aeneas but one gives up even trying to understand how his role, insignificant in straight productions, fits the overall scheme. He is just an actor singing a song, a voice from the radio that we are only half listening to as we do the washing up and dream of suicide. If Purcell's opera cannot make the cast stop what they are doing and listen, it is hardly likely to have a better effect on us. It runs until Saturday with no show on Thursday, St George's Day.
That is when I am due to sing Purcell's Oh Solitude in Southwark Cathedral in honour of Shakespeare's birth- and deathday. Time 2.30pm. I have added Here the Deities Approve from the St Cecilia's Day Ode for 1683 and the song Music for a While. The pianist is James Rhodes whose CD is riding high in the classical charts. A commentary on Purcell's contemporary Nell Gwyn, whose first lover was Shakespeare's great-nephew, is provided by Arthur Smith. We had a high old time discussing it last Friday. He says he is going to bring a dancer on Thursday. Or maybe an actress. His autobiography comes out in a fortnight. I am mentioned in it briefly as the pianist, Mr Banana-Fingers, in an early student production. How they love to put musicians down, these actors.
Meanwhile, just as Purcell adapted Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and turned it into the Fairy Queen, so the contemporary composer Chris De Souza has done the same and turned it into Bottom's Dream. It was performed by the BBC Singers on Monday 20th April, at 3.30pm on Radio 3. The composer says it is full of musical puns like Shakespeare's play and that his Bottom is always accompanied by that most rare of wind instruments, the serpent. You can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer, following the link from this page.