It’s probably apocryphal, but a member of the Covent Garden elite was once heard to exclaim: “What is it tonight, darling, singing or dancing?” Well, both actually.
The Royal Opera and Royal Ballet jointly grace the familiar red programme for this double celebration of Purcell and Handel in commemoration of significant anniversaries – an evening of mixed disciplines and decidedly mixed returns. Myth and mismatch? Yes and no.
You would expect dancing in Baroque opera, fancy footwork has always been a part of the experience, but in choreographer/ director Wayne McGregor’s 2006 staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas it’s almost an afterthought – at best incidental, at worst superfluous. We begin serenely – an image of Dido alone, chaste classical attire, white on a black background. But from the moment she dons her queenly vestments her destiny is determined. Designers Hildegard Bechtler and Fotini Dimou opt for a Japanese minimalism with their clean symmetrical lines and in perfect accord McGregor has his highly articulate chorus impeccably drilled down to the last turn of their collective heads. It’s all very pure and passionless.
And the dancers? Well, they are a kind of grouting between scenes – a separate event in every respect – and, rather perversely, the space that has been created for them does the singers no favours at all. Even the likes of Lucy Crowe (Belinda) and Sara Fulgoni (Sorceress) sound diminished by the open stage. Sarah Connolly, Dido, suffering from a throat infection, did, though, sing her lament with a profound honesty, embellishments and trills emerging as little catches of emotion on the breath. At last, feeling one could relate to – though swiftly cheapened by a cheesy slow-mo projection of a rampant stallion? Er, why?
Handel’s enchanting pastoral masque, Acis and Galatea, was a far happier marriage with singers, dancers, and players (the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Christopher Hogwood) rejoicing in the bountiful good nature of the score. This time McGregor found real purpose for his dancers, echoing, mirroring, the star-crossed lovers – Charles Workman and Danielle de Niese – like a physical expression of their innermost desires. Indeed the dancers (Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson) were always a pas de deux or two ahead of the game in that respect and in a beautiful reversal at the close, Galatea, the singer, dances with the spirit (i.e. the dancer) of the immortalised Acis. Finally – integration, reconciliation, sublimation.