Staff Writer Anwesh Banerjee reviews the KCL Opera Society’s production of Dido and Aeneas
Walking into the King’s Opera Society and KCL Music Society’s annual production “Dido and Aeneas”, I had my expectations sky high and was ready to be thunderously swept into a long-gone world of witchcraft, doomed love, aching lust and absolute fatalism. And rightfully so, since Henry Purcell’s classic, based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, is one of the most loved and revisited operas in the entire corpus of the genre across European languages. Since its first performance in 1689, the doomed story of love has managed to capture the undying attention of generations. Hence, the decision to have this piece as their annual production was one that was fairly riding on an immense wave of expectations.
I am happy to report that this production, directed by Mya G. Kellen, not only delivers on those expectations but also, coupled with a phenomenal orchestra directed and conducted by Sheena Jibowu, managed in many ways to exceed expectations. Taking a cue from the Director’s Note, Kellen is clearly not interested in the realm of the fantastic that drives the narrative logic of this story to begin with. In her hands, the play is stripped bare of its gods and spirits and instead the fatalism of this doomed love story is relocated in the political intrigues of the court and the shocking betrayals that come in the wake of a scandal of unimagined proportions. In doing so, Kellen achieves the production’s singular greatest feat – making it a story that is as relevant as it is resonant with the viewers.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, “Dido and Aeneas” follows the story of the Queen of Carthage as we find her distressed about the state of her kingdom. She is encouraged to pursue and fall in love with the Trojan prince Aeneas who is visiting Carthage at this point – much to the dislike of her sister Belinda. Following a yearning-filled courtship and a singular night of passion. Dido is faced with distrust and disdain in her court as activities of her bedchamber are turned into malicious fodder for her subjects by a scheming Belinda. In the end, the Queen is left with no choice but to reluctantly bid farewell to her lover and enter into the arms of a prison of self-destruction.
Ella Frost who essays the role of Queen Dido is phenomenal in her portrayal of the tragic heroine. There is a deeply fragile quality to her smile that conveys a sense of immediate torment and agony, while also exercising restraint in front of her courtiers – whose approval and love she pines for. Her stunning rendition of the music notwithstanding, her performance is also largely helped by a motley of other actors who, while essaying the role of the Chorus, also take on the role of the courtiers who surround Dido. With excellent use of mimetic action, they made ample use of the proscenium space and smoothen the transitions from Dido’s psycho-space to the material reality of her court. There are stunning images that are brilliantly co-ordinated and orchestrated (pardon the pun), which at once convey at a very literal level the horrors that infest Dido’s mind – thereby making palpable the anxiety that plagues her very soul.
A special mention must be made of Ellie Blewitt who essays the role of Belinda. The decadent beauty of Frost notwithstanding, Blewitt holds her ground as she essays the role of the sister who is almost Machiavellian in her scheming. There is an awkward stiffness to Blewitt, which while being flinching initially, is put to great use by the actress herself over the course of the performance. She plays the stiffness to her favour by embueing her actions with an almost devilish charm which, in the face of chaos eventually breaking out, works absolute wonders for the viewer. Blewitt is an absolute delight to watch in the second act of the opera, as she goes from pretending to care for Dido to actually scheming for her downfall. I cannot wait to see what she does next!
The decision to stage this play in the King’s Building Chapel is another stroke of genius that the production benefits from. The setting, with its preserved frescos, arching vaults and spectacular acoustics, adds an element of expanding gothic dread to the performance that serves to heighten the drama. It is to Kellen’s credit as a director, that she ensures her actors make coherent use of the chapel space – closing in to evoke a sense of claustrophobia when needed and spreading all over when entering a character’s psycho-space again. The final stretch, with its heightened sense of tragic drama plays out wonderfully as the actors proceed to walk with lit candles in the darkened chapel space. The final ebbing movement was played out with great panache on the organ, as Belinda is crowned Queen of Carthage – just the kind of tragic spectacle one visits the opera for.
I had first read about the story of Dido and Aeneas in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, in the fifth act when Jessica and Lorenzo romance each other under the moonlight in Belmont. Shakespeare evokes an image of acute melancholia, as Jessica describes the image of Dido bidding farewell to Aeneas with a single willow branch in her hand. The story of these two fated lovers has always been a symbol of yearning in the literary imagination. And despite a lingering sense of dread and eventual melancholia that is spelt across the performance, it is to the production’s credit that it adds another, and equally important dimension to the story. In choosing to focus on the function of leadership and how it is shaped by public opinion, and how much of a social trial our female leaders are subjected through varied modes of slut-shaming, this adaptation of Purcell’s classic becomes timely and relevant. And that is a triumph in itself!