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Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Dido and Aeneas

The About Turn Theatre Company

Genre: Opera and Operatic Theatre

Venue: theSpace@Venue45, Jeffrey St


Low Down

The most innovative interpretation I have seen in a long time of what is a timeless piece by one of England’s foremost composers. It was also in the top flight from a technical point of view, namely the singing and orchestration.


“Opera” is a word often associated with several hours of intense vibrato and the seemingly over-dramatic demise of the heroine. So perhaps one of the more surprising things about Purcell’s only all-sung opera, Dido and Aeneas, is its length. Even if you included the prologue (which is very rarely sung these days) you’d struggle to get forty-five minutes of music out of it. And yet, despite its brevity, you get a libretto (from Nathan Tate) infused with drama and mystique and music of exquisite precision, guaranteed to test the abilities of any singer but, at the same time, be a true delight to any lover of Baroque.
The opera’s first performance is believed to have been at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London sometime in the summer of 1688. It recounts the love story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas and her despair, leading ultimately to her suicide, when she finds out that he has abandoned her. Regarded by many as a leading example of Baroque opera, it is also remembered as one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical works.
And The About Turn Theatre Company has assembled a formidable cast, orchestra and crew for this production in the prosaic surroundings of theSpace@Venue45. 
Rachael Cox is a tour de force as Dido. Possessed of imposing voice, she delivers each aria with a degree of precision that has the audience hanging on her every note. Dido and Aeneas presents a particular challenge to singers in the range of emotions they are required to convey in a such a short space of time, particularly so in the case of Dido. Ms Cox’s faultless performance demonstrated her complete understanding and command of the role. Put simply, she nailed it.
Timothy Reynolds as Aeneas was no less impressive. An Australian with a resonant tenor voice, he brought appropriate angst and tension to the role, no more so than during the gripping denouement.
The rest of the cast doubled as nurses, witches, sorcerers and, in the cases of Matthew Nicholls, a quite endearing sailor. Collectively they produced a precise, clearly articulated and extremely enjoyable interpretation of the arias in which they performed. They were supported by an impressive chamber trio of harpsichord, violincello and violin and the ensemble was skilfully orchestrated by the commanding musical director, Chris Brammeld. 
Christine Hatton’s innovate set creates an air of sadness and sobriety even before we start. A three-sided curtain shields the stage from the prying eyes of the audience, acting as the screen around the hospital bed where a wounded Aeneas is being treated by a chorus of nurses, prior to receiving a visit from his love, Dido. The curtains fall away to reveal a hessian floor – this is a field hospital – and an array of superb costumes and props that would look good on any West End stage. Nurses morph into sorcerers, attendants and back to nurses again with seamless efficiency. Lighting was supportive and sound was used as an effective adjunct to the score, particularly as Aeneas abandons Dido.
A quite stunning denouement could be made truly memorable by dropping one final sound effect and the mechanism by which the curtains fall away to reveal the set needs a little adjustment – having cast members deftly trying to sort things out whilst in full flow wasn’t necessarily distracting for the audience but may have proved so for those singing. It certainly had the lighting/sound engineer behind me flapping a bit. 
But these are details. This is a timeless piece by one of England’s foremost composers and this was the most innovative interpretation I have seen in a long time.  It was also in the top flight from a technical point of view, namely the singing and orchestration. The About Turn Theatre Company is clearly going places. Highly recommended.