“the quick and vast ranging emotional ground created an evening of whirlwind entertainment from the highs of love to the depths of despair – something not to be missed!”

Durham Opera Ensemble’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ provided a fantastic evening full of intrigue and drama featuring some outstanding performances…

Directed by Jennifer Lafferty and produced by seasoned DOE producers Chavi Chung and Anna Choi, Purcell’s opera tells the story of book IV of the Aeneid – the famous tragic romance between the Queen of Carthage and the Trojan hero Aeneas. Despite the one hour format, the quick and vast ranging emotional ground created an evening of whirlwind entertainment from the highs of love to the depths of despair – something not to be missed! 

The singing was performed with great skill and aplomb, particularly Sophie Garner’s distressed Dido, Izzie Wilcox’s Spirit, and Ruby Alexander’s stable Belinda – a particularly impressive vocal performance with technical excellence and musical elegance despite being only the understudy of the role! However, it was Ryan Robson-Bluer who amazed all with an outstanding vocal performance, bringing a surprising sensitivity and grace to Aeneas’ sometimes brash character. A special mention should also go to Joshua Mcdade for accompanying the entire opera on piano with skill and sensitivity. 

DOEs choice to present ‘Dido and Aeneas’  as a standing opera, whilst rightly focussing on the excellent music and singing, at times left the acting with something to be desired. Whilst facial expressions were excellently suited and well performed, further body language and movement was often limited, perhaps due to a misguided understanding of the format. More discussion on the nature of standing opera was potentially required for audiences as well as actors, as this was unmentioned on advertising, a surprising choice due to the usual perfomance-based behaviour of DOE. To improve, more movement and characterisation in entrances and exits would remove the wooden, directed feeling of a character standing centre stage and singing. Fabian Tindale Geere, however, dispelled this all with his brilliant fervour, mischief, and wickedness as the sorcerer, bring a much needed stage presence, command, use of space, and fully fleshed characterisation – inspiring his witches to follow suit and bring life to the stage as well.

The chorus, conducted by Leo Zagorac, was clearly a group of talented singers who demonstrated technical correctness, and musical contrast and interest (however, balance could be improved, with one or two singers frequently protruding clumsily from the musical texture, although likely unnoticeable to most audience members). Additionally, at times the group could benefit from further characterisation; whilst this is a difficult task considering their nebulous, multifaceted aims, this could bring a further level of coherence and brilliance to the show. 

Moments of directorial excellence were also demonstrated, particularly in the surprising and effective conversion of the Hild Bede chapel into a traverse stage from its proscenium arch-like setting earlier on. The chapel was a refreshing arena for performance, inherently bringing a sense of gravity and antiquity well-suited to the content, however, could have been improved from additional set design. Whilst reorganising the chapel was likely prohibited, perhaps in future the space could be made more atmospheric with a change in lighting, for example, making the audience less lit could be achieved even with candles – especially in a space designed for candlelit reading! 

However, despite small nitpicks, overall, the opera was a wonderful interpretation featuring generally excellent performances, and some truly exceptional moments, all squeezed into a short format to create a compelling show recommended to music lovers across Durham. 

By George Daniel

Dido and Aenaes is performing at the College of St Hild and St Bede Chapel until the 19th November

Photo Credits: Durham Opera Ensemble