A few months after the Royal Opera House reopened following the Second World War, the resident opera and ballet companies joined forces for a performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen. So it's appropriate that in his anniversary year, the same composer's Dido and Aeneas has brought the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera back together, alongside Acis and Galatea by Handel – another birthday boy of course.
The double bill is the brainchild of Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. The Dido production derives from his 2006 staging at La Scala, while the longer Acis segment is entirely new. Overall, the Purcell is more beautifully conceived but rather clinical in effect, in spite of some atmospheric tableaux, while the Handel benefits more from the choreography but suffers from a bizarre and unhelpful design. Ultimately, although the two operas are based on grand stories from Ovid and Virgil, neither emerges on as classically grand a scale as their source material.
The curtain rises on Dido to show the spotlighted figure of Sarah Connolly as Dido. This already elegiac picture paved the way for the rest of the production, which used a mixture of evocative lighting, sliding curtains and an L-shaped wall to create contrasting acting spaces. The bottom of the Trojan ship is one of the few literally representative pieces of scenery, but it works well; less obviously effective is the projected animation of a horse (by Mark Hatchard of HotBox Studios) at the opera's close, presumably depicting the journey of Dido to the underworld. Hildegard Bechtler's sets and Fotini Dimou's costumes were coherent and sleek but too cold and anonymous for my taste. This is a chamber opera, yes, but it tells a grand tale that could be played out against a nobler backdrop.
Apologies were made for Connolly before the curtain rose, but the effects of a throat infection were not particularly apparent during this, her long-overdue Covent Garden debut. She was excellent at inhabiting a production that required her to interact with dancers and yet held her own as the Queen. As the opera wore on she grew in vocal heft and delivered a poised account of the famous Lament. (Click here to read our recent interview with Connolly.)
Lucy Crowe was a sympathetic Belinda, though the greatest vocal purity came from Iestyn Davies as the Spirit. Sara Fulgoni was a fiery Sorceress, though her tone could have been more full-blooded; Lucas Meachem was a bold Aeneas, and Young Artists Eri Nakamura, Pumeza Matshikiza and Anita Watson all did themselves proud in their small roles. The Royal Opera Extra Chorus was, perhaps surprisingly, the cornerstone of the performance, singing strongly and helping to keep the performance on an even keel. Christopher Hogwood and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played beautifully, but something failed to ignite during the Purcell, at least to these ears; the impressive thunderclaps outdid some of the solo numbers, which could have been more compelling.
Bechtler's designs for Acis and Galatea were peculiar indeed, though it has to be admitted that even at ninety minutes, Handel padded out the opera beyond the real substance of its flimsy story. Acis loves Galatea, and she loves him. But when the ugly giant Polyphemus also makes advances on Galatea and is rejected, he takes revenge on the lovebirds by killing Acis. However, all's resolved when Galatea remembers that she's a semi-divine nymph who has the power to turn Acis into a god.
It's a whimsical story which McGregor breathes some life into thanks to the remarkable performances of the dancers from the Royal Ballet, amongst whom Edward Watson was outstanding. Cleverly, McGregor plays out the opera with two casts: the opera singers in modern dress, experiencing the plot as it's written, and the ballet dancers in a kind of neutral, asexual body sock, portraying the same characters in a godlike metaworld.
This works most powerfully at the moment when Acis is transfigured into a god, so that Danielle de Niese as Galatea dances a little pas de deux with Watson as the god version of Acis. In general, Handel's tremendous, expressive, angular score is well suited to the intensity created by McGregor's choreography, especially in the longer solo arias. However, it's somewhat spoilt for me by the bizarre sets, which range from a twee backdrop and a strange desert oasis to the figures of stuffed sheep and deer and a random pile of wood. The most risible moment comes during the duet 'Happy we', when it starts to rain or hailstone onto the little island set for the oasis. It's a shame, because McGregor's handling of the text is not uninteresting, and the musical performance is very good for this opera.
De Niese is an incomparable show woman, easily overcoming her ridiculous costume with her inherent glamour, and she sings with surprisingly powerful projection, especially given her small instrument. She's also expressive and attentive to detail. Her vibrato is too fast for my taste in this music and she could sing more smoothly in the more reflective moments, but this was a successful ROH debut and a striking role portrayal. (Click here to read our recent interview with De Niese.)
Still, it's the men who own the stage here, particularly the imposing figure of Matthew Rose as Polyphemus. In a stylised production, he added a layer of humanity that was lacking elsewhere, while in spite of an announced illness he sang with power and immense expression. A former Young Artist, Rose is one of the Royal Opera's great success stories.
Charles Workman was also excellent as Acis, though he was in danger at one point of being overshadowed by Paul Agnew's no less refined Damon. Ji-Min Park was also in his element as Coridon. Overall, the musical performance here was much more impressive, partly because the score encourages greater exuberance, and the OAE were lithe and merry under Hogwood's direction. Of the other dancers, Lauren Cuthbertson's wittily-observed Galatea and Steven McRae's supple Damon were noteworthy, though in general the performance marked a success in terms of the collaboration between the Covent Garden companies, marred only by the unappealing set design.
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper
Interview: Danielle de Niese on this production of Acis and her new Mozart CD
Interview: Sarah Connolly on I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Dido
Review: The Royal Opera's I Capuleti revival
Review: Acis and Galatea at the London Handel Festival