The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's staging of Dido and Aeneas made no claims to authenticity – beyond using an orchestra of similar proportions to that used for masques at the court of Charles II, and a pellucid trio of theorbos to decorate additional dialogue from Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage. Accompanying spoken verse with lutes is not unprecedented. Neither is performing Dido with an older play. (In 1700 it was presented in masque form with Measure for Measure.) But in Tim Carroll's production, there was a third element: puppets.
A puppet Dido with added dialogue makes exceptional demands on performers and audience, offering conflicting interpretations of the same story in a medium foreign to both. Where Nahum Tate, Purcell's librettist, presents Aeneas as more interested in the idea of heroism than heroism itself, Marlowe has him as a traumatised war veteran. In Carroll's production, designed by Jenny Tiramani and Mandarava, he wears a permanent frown, clasping his little wooden hand to his little wooden head as he describes the sack of Troy in the voice of actor Jonathan Oliver and woos the Queen of Carthage in the voice of singer Giles Underwood, who share responsibility for animating the figure.
What could have been a three-legged race between Team Aeneas and Team Dido (Sarah Connolly and Yolanda Vasquez), with puppets as handicaps, was instead a fascinating exploration of intimacy and artifice, rhetoric and silence. Marlowe's verse challenges and reinforces Purcell's characterisations: adding layers of coquetry and vanity to Dido, making Aeneas's conflict deeper, and making us listen to each air without subconciously fast-forwarding to the money-shot lament. The main challenge was who to look at: singing Dido, speaking Dido, or wooden Dido?
As with I Fagiolini's The Full Monteverdi, the listening actors were as vital to the music as the singers. With the strings arranged in a semi-circle behind the chorus and continuo, musical directors Steven Devine (harpsichord) and Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo) playing at either end, and a chorus busy with their own dancing sailors, succubi and Hunterian Collection specimens, coordination was dependent on breathing together. Though Kenny favoured rhythmic freedom and Devine a rigid tactus, seemingly urging the mourning cupids to get back to their archery duties, the choruses were expressive, the arias spontaneous and tender.
From Elin Manahan Thomas's pretty, fretful Belinda to Simon Wall's beautifully musical Sailor, Alexandra Gibson's greedy Sorceress and William Purefoy's chilly Spirit, the minor roles were excellent, while Underwood/Oliver and Connolly/Vasquez were deeply affecting. I doubt this experiment will catch on. Still, it was remarkable to hear the first through-composed English opera remain great when heard movement by movement, and a novel experience to find a lump in my throat as a little wooden doll was laid on a little wooden funeral pyre.
Styled after Cinema Paradiso, Annabel Arden's production of L'elisir d'amore for Glyndebourne on Tour is as cute as cute can be. Designed by Lez Brotherston, the piazza where wealthy Adina (Adriana Kucerova) flirts with humble Nemorino (Peter Auty) is a pre-war paradise where even the snake-oil salesman Dr Dulcamara (Luciano di Pasquale) and the bombastic black-shirt Belcore (Massimo Cavalletti) are benign. Like all good romantic comedies, the opera's sugariness is balanced with pathos and perspicacity. Although there are few aphrodisiacs as effective as a large inheritance or a Bordeaux (the elixir of the title), Adina and Nemorino show us that true love, with its pride-pricking ups and downs, beats both. Stylish singing from Kucerova is one draw, British-born Peter Auty's true Italian tenor the other.
'L'elisir d'amore' (01273 813813) to 25 October, then touring
Further reading David Riggs's scholarly work 'The World of Christopher Marlowe'Reuse content