Having delighted in director Purni Morell’s recent Icarus (also at the Unicorn – read the review here) I absolutely jumped at the chance to see her reimagining of Purcell’s iconic Dido and Aeneas (an early English opera composed in the 1680s) in collaboration with the English National Opera. Promising to keep almost all the (fabulous) original score, this production came with a thrilling modern premise:
Belinda is the only child of Dido. A teenager like any other, in any big city. We watch through her eyes as her mother – heroine, feminist icon, modern parent – slowly starts to fall apart, with tragic consequences.
The problem is, if I hadn’t read the blurb, I don’t think I’d have noticed that this is what they were going for. Casting 18-year old Eyra Norman as Belinda makes sense in this context, but without it you’re left wondering why the strongest and best singers have been relegated to the chorus. This is exacerbated by Rachael Lloyd’s performance as Dido – overall emotionally well-placed (kudos for convincing pain and resulting suicide within what’s appropriate for a target age of 11+) but outshone by the vocal quality of the chorus. Her Dido’s Lament was suitably expressive and was the emotional crux it needed to be, but her earlier Ah! Belinda (one of my favourites) fell somewhat flat – perhaps a decision to start lighter before darkening the tragic mood? Or nerves settling as the performance began? In any case, one of my favourite pieces somehow became forgettable.
The chorus was, undoubtedly, made up of singers with very bright futures. However, in attempting to strike a sombre-but-casual mood, they read mostly as bored. This was perhaps exacerbated by their additional duties as stage-hands and constant onlookers, with all cast/props/set on stage throughout. This did lead to some comic moments (the shuddering descent of floating trees, a counter-tenor effectively bench-pressing a bench, wine bottles doing a full circuit of the stage) but I’m almost certain these were accidental.
Having the musicians on stage throughout was a fabulous decision, and one which hopefully will leave the positive impression on the young audiences this production seeks. However, the power and emotion of the score didn’t really come across. Perhaps it was the acoustic?
I love this music with a passion that borders on the inappropriate. It is deeply emotional, hauntingly beautiful yet still relatively accessible – the key ingredients were all there. I was brimming with excitement to see how the Unicorn Theatre would reframe it, as they’re usually so successful in fulfilling their aim to produce inspiring and invigorating work for young audiences. Sadly, on this occasion, it missed the mark. If it left me, frankly, a little bored, what impression will it leave on its target audience of 11-18 year olds?
Runs until Sunday 2 June 2019 at Unicorn Theatre, London Bridge.