Whichever way you look at it, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a flawed operatic gem.
Music is missing, presumed lost, its proportions are problematic, not to say dramatically untenable, and at least one part is woefully underwritten. But it culminates in that lament – “When I am laid in earth” – which in shifting the tragedy from the very particular to the wholly universal is something which touches something inside all of us and transcends everything that precedes it. The question still remains, though: what brings us to that point?
Enter Katie Mitchell with her designer Vicki Mortimer, her director of photography Leo Warner, and her very own storyboard. After Dido – the latest of English National Opera’s fruitful collaborations with the Young Vic - is a multimedia response to Purcell’s opera, a new framework, a new context for the piece, one which gives it far reaching contemporary resonance whilst extending the role of its performers from the singularly re-creative to the multifariously creative with we the audience bearing witness to the entire process. Lights, camera, action…
In entering the Young Vic we enter a studio, a workshop. We might be on the set of Eastenders. Well, let’s face it, is Greek tragedy such a stretch from that particular soap opera? But the first thing we will come to notice – apart, that is, from the big screen suspended above the action – is that the busy band of technicians, setting up props, moving video cameras, are indistinguishable from the performers. Indeed, they are the performers, and it is an extraordinary and magical moment when they start to sing for the first time.
Mitchell’s conceit in the first minutes of the piece – before the first notes of Purcell’s opera sound live – is to set up a contemporary atmosphere with snatches of Purcell (not Dido) emanating from radio sets (BBC broadcasts, of course) situated in the various locations. We see three individuals at first (later four) snapshots of whose lives will come to mirror not the narrative but the emotional landscape of the Purcell – love found and then lost. We see a man in the throes of a marital break-up, a bereaved woman, an abandoned woman, each at a critical point in addressing their particular predicaments. Purcell’s opera becomes the soundtrack to their lives as they arrive at that collective point of catharsis – i.e. the lament.
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. The headlights of a car passing a window is crudely achieved by a member of the ensemble passing a lamp over a window but on screen the finished shot is hugely atmospheric. They even achieve instant flashbacks: the close-up of a seashell, seen now on a table in gloomy suburbia and in the moment it is plucked from a sunny beach in happier times. The shots are edited in our presence and the scenario assembled in our imaginations.
But far from being merely an intriguing technical exercise, After Dido is a highly emotional experience, too. The way in which Mitchell’s film becomes a visual expression of the music, the way Purcell’s arias and instrumental interludes (beautifully played by members of the ENO orchestra directed by Christian Curnyn) reflect the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings is poetically achieved. When Aeneas reflects on the heartache of his departure the bereaved woman is seen opening a plastic envelope of his personal possessions and laying them out (close up of the remnants of his life in her hands); or more moving still, the moment she steps into his shoes as if trying to fill them.
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.