This double-bill is a brave undertaking in many ways, firstly in programming these two recalcitrant masterpieces which both fit uneasily into an evening’s performance. Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, to a Jean Cocteau libretto, lasts 45 minutes and carries enough emotional heft to exhaust an audience and a soprano. When Opera North staged it in 2006, the company decided to let it stand alone. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (words by Nahum Tate, of “While Shepherds Watched” fame), is a complete operatic experience in an hour. Leaving aside the obvious pairing with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (possibly considered a bit unadventurous these days), you can stretch it by more Purcell dance music, put in an interval and call it an evening or pair it with something totally unsuitable, as with the last Opera North production, Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces filling the time till the interval.
So pairing the two is an inspired piece of risk-taking. The two differ in so many ways (France in 1959 and ancient Carthage as seen by 17th century London have little in common), but both operas foreground a deserted woman. In La Voix Humaine a woman desperately converses on the telephone with the lover who has just left her; in Dido and Aeneas spirits persuade Aeneas, the Trojan prince, to leave Carthage and his lover Dido.
A particularly courageous decision was that of Lesley Garrett to take on the single character in La Voix Humaine. Risking her popular following built on more audience-accessible works and returning to the opera stage in a 45-minute solo performance, she deserves to succeed – and she does. She resists mannerisms, commands the stage and has the diction and the vocal resources to face up to Poulenc’s demands. Only at the end does she venture a diva-ish transformation scene – which works dramatically, even if it gives the opera a too specific ending. Overall this is impressive, if less involving than one would wish.
However, problems appear with Dido and Aeneas. Bravely and imaginatively director/choreographer Aletta Collins links the two operas and the two women together. Her Dido and Aeneas shares many motifs with La Voix Humaine, especially the symbolism of the colour-coded costumes, and is also played out in a single room, Dido’s bedroom/sick-room. One can only assume that the hunt, the storm and the port are in her diseased mind. The dance movements are replaced by expressive movement from a mix of dancers and singers whilst the chorus operates unseen from the pit. Collins pursues her concept with admirable consistency, but I wondered if anyone unfamiliar with the opera would have any idea who was who and what was what. Certainly Dido is unrecognisable as the Queen of Carthage.
Fortunately Purcell’s glorious music emerges unscathed. Pamela Helen Stephen is powerful and expressive as Dido and Amy Freston as Belinda (apparently Dido’s nurse) sings stylishly and joyously. Phillip Rhodes is a robust, rather rough-hewn Aeneas and Heather Shipp exudes malevolence as the Sorceress. Best of all Wyn Davies presides over a protean performance from the orchestra: after Poulenc’s jagged dissonances and hints of popular music, Purcell’s infectious rhythms emerge with winning freshness.
La Voix Humaine and Dido and Aeneas both run at The Leeds Grand Theatre until 23 February.For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on