In a stylised Japanese imperial court, a young woman stands. She is pouting. Rachel Cole’s Dido is clearly a woman who is used to being pandered to, and as her two friends attempt to persuade her to yield to her passion for Aeneas, her Trojan guest, we wonder whether anyone has spoken honestly to the queen in her life. Her court flickers with illusion; her courtiers hide behind fans and mimic the movements of the lovers behind their backs. The queen’s vanity will be her downfall.
Cole has a true facility for Purcell’s music, which makes her a pleasure to listen to. She has a worthy match in Tom Dixon, playing the part of the Sorceress, desperate to ruin the happiness of the young lovers. It is a brave choice, to cast a counter-tenor in a role that is traditionally female, which has paid off. Dixon’s quiet, menacing presence on stage is well-complemented by the gleeful mischief of his attendant witches, Lila Chrisp and Rory Green. Unfortunately, the chorus (with only two to a part) is too small to create a convincing impression of malicious hordes of witches intent on casting a spell; this is unfortunate, as they are perfect for the claustrophobic scenes in Dido’s court.
The production promises great things in terms of interesting staging and lighting effects. Although taking place in the chapel of St Peter’s, it will be fully staged and lit – a rare occurrence for opera productions in Oxford. Thankfully, this does not mean that they are compromising the quality of music making. Most of the singers are drawn from St Peter’s Chapel Choir, and there are no noticeable weak links among them. Thea Waxman deserves special mention as Belinda, singing some of the most challenging music with confidence and ease. Nor does Cole’s rendition of the famous lament disappoint: stripped of her delusions and abandoned by her lover, at last Dido expresses herself with true passion. It is strikingly poignant.
This will be an exciting and accessible production; perhaps a little uneven at times (though with only three weeks to put it together, the production team are to be congratulated on their efficiency!) With a running time of about an hour, it should be a fresh and enjoyable addition to third week.
Dido and Aeneus will be playing at the St. Peter’s chapel on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of 3rd week.