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Dido and Aeneas, Bristol Old Vic, review: Wonderfully zesty and fresh

The vibrant singing of the youthful Erebus Ensemble made the evening

The BBC Proms are still a sell-out, but their formula has become desperately tired and predictable: cue something entirely different in the form of the Bristol Proms.

These events may be as much a marketing opportunity as a new artistic departure, but the climax to this year’s variegated programme was a Dido and Aeneas with wonderful zest and freshness.

The venue greatly helped: built in 1766, this beautiful little theatre has an ideal acoustic, and directors Tom Morris and John Retallack used candle-light to evoke atmosphere.

Since Purcell’s masterpiece lasts a mere fifty-five minutes, it made good sense to attune our minds beforehand with a contextualising hour of songs and readings: thus did we get the intoxicating dissonances of ‘Hear my prayer’, plus Dryden’s poetic take on the story and a startlingly scatological Purcellian drinking song.

The title role was sung by the black South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, whose luxuriant fullness of tone had a thrilling edge; David Stout’s Aeneas and Clare Presland’s Belinda were her competent foils, with the ever-memorable Hilary Summers in ebullient form as the Sorceress.

But what made the evening special – and the closing scene so moving - was the vibrant singing of the youthful Erebus Ensemble, and the pellucid polyphonies and exquisite continuos of the period-instrument English Concert.