Good grief!

Opera Factory; Opera Atelier

"Peace and I are strangers grown," laments Dido. "Grief is too great. I cannot pray," utters the Madwoman. Dido's grief is self-seeking through self-centred loss (albeit through a deliberate trick of the gods); the Madwoman's is so unutterable that only distraction can result. On paper, the idea of pairing Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Britten's Curlew River is inspired. Purcell and Britten stand as pinnacles of English composition. The two works deal with similar subjects and each tackles its subject in a highly stylised manner to reveal, the more powerfully, universal truths. But where David Freeman's Opera Factory staging of Curlew River hits every nail on the head, and with devastating effect, his Dido remains half-cooked.

Curlew River, the first of Britten's "church parables", was written shortly after War Requiem and occupies similar emotional terrain. The story, taken from a medieval Japanese Noh play, charts the journey of a woman in search of her lost son. The loss has caused her to lose her reason. As the woman, Nigel Robson gives as powerful a portrayal of madness as can be imagined. His grotesque facial gestures, his faltering movements, his rapid alternation between the rational and the irrational inspire terror, grief, guilt, shock and love in the onlooker. Vocally, his reading is full-blooded, a sound very different from that of Peter Pears, for whom the part was written.

Freeman's sureness of direction is aided by inspired design (Karin Suss) and lighting (Ian Sommerville). There is no scenery: the action takes place in and around a tilted rectangular dais filled with pebbles, which not only stand in for the riverbed but supply a sound "prop" - menacing as the Madwoman falls, or is thrown, upon them, disturbing as she fingers them agitatedly while the Ferryman (an impressive Geoffrey Dolton) recalls the fate of the innocent child. A single miscalculation mars this otherwise remarkable production: the casting of a woman for the Spirit of the boy.

Hard to believe that the same production team tackled Dido. With a trouser- suited Dido and Belinda, complete with mobile phone, it seemed at first like La Calisto re-visited. No such luck. Whether the fault is Purcell's for filling his masterpiece with too much action to stage in 50 minutes, or Freeman's for doubling roles, this staging didn't seem to know where it was going. Frenetic role- and costume-changing meant that nothing settled. Marie Angel arrived high and dry for Dido's lament with woefully inadequate pacing towards this great climax. Both works were supported by the Endymion Ensemble under Nicholas Kok, demonstrating impressive versatility in "oriental" (but tough) Britten and "authentic" Purcell.

A very different Dido was brought to the Proms on Wednesday by the polyglot combination of Opera Atelier (Canada), Les Musiciens du Louvre (France) and Polyphony (UK). What might Freeman have done with such lavish resources (23 instrumentalists to his seven; seven dancers to his none; and an off- stage chorus of 24)? More, I suspect than we saw at the Albert Hall amid the specially imported Doric columns. This was an echt authentic version, with singers and dancers sumptuously costumed, looking as if they had just walked out of the court of Louis XIV. But would a 17th-century staging really have featured a sailor with a ship on his head, or a Sorceress so clearly in drag? Copious programme notes were devoted to Dido's problematic history, but not a clue was given as to the identity of the substantial additional music included. This extra music allowed for much stately dance and a more relaxed pacing of the drama, but the elaborate hand- gesturing used here, however "authentic" in the 17th century, spells kitsch to today's sensibilities.

Linda Maguire's Dido was adequate but unexceptional, while Shari Saunders, as Belinda, produced a fresh, bell-like tone. Polyphony excelled, especially when singing into their scores to produce the famous echo effect. Marc Minkowski conducted the admirable Musiciens du Louvre in fast (and sometimes furious) tempi but let the lament sag. So did this expensively produced Dido amount to significantly more than Freeman's undercooked version? Probably not.

n Opera Factory, to 15 Sept, QEH, SBC, London SE1. Booking: 0171-960 4242

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