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Hearing loss at Royal Opera Dido

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 11:15 UK time, Wednesday, 1 April 2009

roh_acis_deniese_workman_photo-bill_cooper.jpgIt is always slightly awkward to be caught in the wrong seat, at Covent Garden especially, although when this happened to me last night, my real place was actually an improvement so it felt like I'd been upgraded to Business Class when the real owner arrived. In fact, I was now in line with two Conservative former office-bearers whose mistresses had embarrassed their governments, a coincidence that helped set a distinctly Restoration atmosphere!

A pity then that this production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas lacks bawdiness. It was all rather sober. The chorus sang 'bouzy' to rhyme with 'lousy' when everyone knows it's boozy rhyming with floozie. Are we suddenly ashamed of drunkenness? Purcell's contemporaries were proud of it. The sailors' touching demeanour as they 'took their leave of their nymphs on the shore' was too warm and tearful to suggest they were 'never intending to visit them more'.

The designs are drab. Everyone is clad in shades of grey. This is especially hard on Aeneas who has little enough in his part to suggest anyone might commit suicide for love of him and could do with a few peacock feathers. Added to this, American baritone Lucas Meachem in the role has rather woolly tone. Sarah Connolly as Dido, suffering from a throat infection, sang on gamely and did her best to convince us of her desperation but she seemed more tired of life than of love. She achieved a real pathos in 'When I am Laid' but even this was spoiled for people in my vicinity by the high-pitched whistle of a malfunctioning hearing-aid.

The star of the show was soprano Lucy Crowe as Belinda who sang deliciously, ornamented her runs with a conniving smile and showed genuine, sobbing compassion for her mistress at the awful moment. Hard on her heels was Sara Fulgoni's Sorceress with Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza as scary First and Second Witches made up as Siamese twins. The dancers of the Royal Ballet were dressed in 1930s gym kit and were a delight to watch throughout, their moves owing as much to jazz dance, disco, robotics, circus contortionism as classical ballet.

Handel's Acis and Galatea overfills the second half. It is not an opera at all, but a sequence of themed numbers connected by the briefest recitative intros. Director Wayne MacGregor runs out of ideas as to how to stage these after a while, the idea of a singer singing them while a solo dancer dances them sufficing for item after item. Several should have been cut. Soprano Danielle de Niese sings Galatea but we have to wait for the final number for her to display her double talent as a dancer too. This was how she made her sensational name in Glyndebourne's Julius Caesar three years ago. One could not believe a leading soprano could be so lissome and agile. It did not help that she and her Acis, sung by Charles Workman in a querulous tenor, were dressed in overcoats at the start for no good reason. They looked somewhat at odds with the corps de ballet who wore nothing but flesh-toned body-stockings to the initial tittering of a section of the crowd. Matthew Rose sang Polyphemus with less force than he will when he is over his throat infection for which he too begged understanding.

Christopher Hogwood conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in both the Purcell and the Handel and in truth they are the real winners of the evening even if the dancers do not allow them to play at quite the lick they would like to in some of the dances. It's a long evening and quite a serious one with neither boozy fun on stage, buxom orange-sellers in the interval or cards or conversation in the boxes anymore.


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