It may sound like a cost-cutting exercise in these difficult times, and something like Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s cramming together of opera and comedy in Ariadne auf Naxos, but there’s no reason this shouldn’t be a much more comfortable fit. Mark Morris did it brilliantly at the Coliseum, with Handel’s Il Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato a decade or so ago, but McGregor doesn’t pull it off quite so well.
Dido, which is tried and tested (it marked McGregor’s operatic debut at La Scala three years ago), is much the more successful of the two pieces. It’s certainly helped by two stunning house debuts: Sarah Connolly as Dido and Lucy Crowe as Belinda.
Connolly may have been suffering from the tail-end of a throat infection but it barely noticed and her long-awaited Royal Opera debut was little short of a triumph. Her lament and the following chorus were deeply moving and proved the highlight of the evening.
Crowe brought a sweet intensity and purity of tone to her role, proving again that she is a major star of the future. As Aeneas, American baritone Lucas Meachem was smooth but a little characterless, something that could be said of Sara Fulgoni’s Sorceress and McGregor’s production in general. Purcell’s mini-epic struggles to fill the space but it’s an elegantly attractive attempt.
Acis and Galatea is more problematic and some of this lies in Hildegard Bechtler’s designs. Bechtler is perhaps best known in London for her theatre work, at the National Theatre and Royal Court, where she has conjured up some extraordinary work. For Dido, she makes a pretty stylish job of limited means, but for Acis, everything is a little ramshackle.
We get a series of painted gauzes, interspersed with stuffed animals (peacocks and deer, later sheep and even a wolf) and set piece displays of driftwood and a revolving classical ruin. It’s all a bit chocolate-boxy and incohesive.
Handel’s oratorio-come-opera-come-masque doesn’t help, dramatically inert and drawn-out, lacking in connecting recitatives (although the evening is quite long enough without them). The effect is of a set of illustrations, rather than a driving narrative and, while there is some fine music, it doesn’t gel as theatre. One best kept for concert performance perhaps.
It has to be said that McGregor’s interspersing of dancers, with each singer doubled, doesn’t add much. Ballet and opera does its own thing and the twain hardly meets.
Danielle de Niese, also making her Royal Opera debut, blonde plaited wig at odds with her dark complexion, fails to make a great impact. She has stunned over the last few years with her Glyndebourne performances but here falls rather flat. One wouldn’t want to type-cast her as a femme fatale but take away the flamboyance and sauce and there’s not a lot left. The voice just isn’t big or beautiful enough on its own.
Charles Workman is a light but effective tenor as Galatea and Matthew Rose a weighty Polyphemus. It’s good to see Christopher Hogwood back in the Royal Opera House pit and his direction of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the chief joys of the evening.
Photo: Bill Cooper
- Simon Thomas
Acis and Galatea will be broadcast on BBC4 on Friday 15 May and Dido and Aeneas on Friday 22 May. Both productions will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 20 June at 6.30pm. They will also be recorded by the Royal Opera House/Opus Arte for future DVD release.