Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways. It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests. Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop. So, a sort of oratorio with curtains. It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days. Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment. In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.
One of the trickiest things about opera productions; baroque opera anyway, is what to do about the dance elements. Time was when opera and ballet were joined at the hip but not so much nowadays beyond sharing premises. In 2009 the Royal Opera House made the bold decision to have choreographer Wayne McGregor direct the combined forces of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet in a production of Henry Purcell’s pocket masterpiece Dido and Aeneas. The result was broadcast by the BBC and subsequently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Opus Arte. It’s a fascinating and rewarding production.
Sets and costumes are very spare. Aeneas and the chorus are in greatcoats and wide trousers. The ladies are in unfussy gowns. The dancers are in singlets and booty shorts (both sexes). Carefully detailed direction of the singers and their gestures, bold choreography and imaginative lighting carry the visual side of the production. The use of top quality dancers and a top notch choreographer allows the dance elements to realise their full potential (and not a castanet in sight!). The result is visually stunning.
Now add a superb singing cast. Lucy Crowe almost steals the show as Belinda. She’s fresh and vivacious and her clean sound is just right for Purcell. But it is “almost” because we have Sarah Connolly’s monumental Dido to set against it.(1) She is one of the great Didos. I have heard Kirkby, Te Kanawa, Ewing and Baker in the role and even Flagstad but none exceed the combination of searing intensity and pathos that Connolly brings to the role. She is superb. Other elements of the singing are also admirable. Lucas Meachem is a hunky Aeneas and manages the tricky low notes better than most. The sorceress and witches; Sara Fulgoni with Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza playing Siamese twins, don’t do the camped up distorted thing that is so often inflicted on the role. Fulgoni sings with quite a lot of vibrato which is sufficient to create some musical distance between her and the non infernal characters. The minor roles are all pretty good too. The regular Covent Garden orchestra is replaced by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Christopher Hogwood. This is a move that other large houses might think about for earlier repertoire.
All this goodness builds to a searing climax in which Dido slits her wrists with the “tushes far exceeding those that Venus’ huntsman slew” and dies while a haunting projection of a horse plays back of stage. All in all it’s an hour of magic.
Video direction is much better than average. Close ups are minimised and we get to see the choreography in its broadest sense. The picture is superb 16:9 anamorphic (1080i on the Blu-Ray) and sound options are PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 (PCM 2.0 and PCM 5.1 on Blu-Ray). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitle options.
(1) I do think the balance of voice types between Belinda and Dido is important. It’s like Carmen and Micaëla. If the voices are too similar much texture is lost. Crowe and Connolly are an ideal combination.