After Dido is a show based on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in this 350th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. While the whole of the score is performed live, it’s a far from straightforward presentation of this earliest of English operas. The musical side is rendered secondary to Mitchell’s multimedia exploration of the modern resonances of the themes of grief and despair that run through the classic work.
This, in itself, is enough to infuriate some of the opera critics. Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph finds it all too heavy-handed and berates the creators for sidelining the fine musical performance. The Guardian took a double-headed approach, sending along both Michael Billington (theatre) and Tim Ashley (music). They reflect a view voiced elsewhere that it falls between too stools and doesn’t please anyone.
There’s plenty of praise too – in fact, ranging from two to five stars, the reviews are even more widespread in opinion than usual. Edward Seckerson is bowled over by the combination of technical skill and artistry and The Times’ Sam Marlowe describes it as a “great achievement”.
Simon Thomas, in whatsonstage.com’s review, calls it a “breaking of boundaries, consummately executed” and says both companies (ENO and the Young Vic) “should be proud” of the work.
Simon Thomas on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “an almost wholly successful staging that dispenses with coherent narrative while bombarding the senses… There’s a long (too long) prelude of establishment shots, before the score proper begins, in which we’re introduced to the tricks of the trade – actors and props doubled for close-ups, off-screen sound fx and incessant scurrying between locations. There’s a blurring throughout of actors, singers and technicians (not many Didos have to busy themselves at the props table directly after singing the lament!)… The organised chaos, meticulously choreographed, is so dizzying a second viewing wouldn’t reveal half of what’s going on and it all becomes draining once the basic conceits are laid down. “
Michael Billington/Tim Ashley in The Guardian (two stars) – “Mitchell conjures up one or two beautiful art-movie images, such as a white curtain billowing in the breeze, but her experiment prompts several questions. Who exactly is it for? Purcell-lovers are likely to be disgruntled, while newcomers won't get the full intensity of the original opera. Isn't it also arrogant to assume a baroque opera can only be approached through updated accounts of dumped lovers?... Conducted with considerable refinement by Christian Curnyn, the opera is for the most part finely sung.”
Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph (three stars) – “I can respect the aesthetic sincerity behind the concept and admire the skill with which it executed, but golly does it take itself seriously. This effect is clunkingly heavy-handed… This banal psychodrama doesn’t engage with the genius of Purcell’s opera at all. Mitchell seems to be cloth-eared to its courtliness, its delicacy, its humour, its sexy charm. All that interests her is the use of the music’s vein of melancholy as a soundtrack for a display of modern miserabilism. Christian Curnyn conducts a small band vigorously from the harpsichord. But their fine music-making is made to seem secondary to the dumb-show, and that is something I just can’t countenance or forgive. Katie Mitchell’s earnest disciples will doubtless be enthralled, but lovers of Purcell’s opera would be well advised to steer clear.
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “a many-layered interpretation of Purcell’s opera in what has become the team’s hallmark multimedia style. The results are visually lovely yet fiercely compelling: an interweaving of disparate lives and individual fates, and an acknowledgement of music’s power to heal and to ignite a frightening blaze of feeling… The dislocation has a delicious wit, and far from diffusing the piece’s emotional intensity, fragmentation intensifies it… The opera sometimes illustrates the action, and sometimes supplies a counterpoint… That is Mitchell’s great achievement: a work in which there is a genuine, and dramatically thrilling, dialogue not just between media, but between art forms. Gorgeous.”
Edward Seckerson in The Independent (five stars) – “The technical aspects of the show are staggering. The film shots are not only beautifully composed, lit, and executed but the process happens in real time before our very eyes. At any given moment we can choose whether to look at the live action or the finished shot, and seeing both lets us in on the artifice and deception behind all creative art… But far from being merely an intriguing technical exercise, After Dido is a highly emotional experience, too… Come the moment of catharsis – Dido’s lament (affectingly sung by Susan Bickley, who would not, I am sure, want to be singled out from “the ensemble”) – the ritual suicide (the abandoned girl taking the fateful overdose) is seen in stark juxtaposition with a moving act of remembrance as the bereaved woman’s face surveys the countless candles she has lit. Life goes on.”