Dido and Aeneas at the Town Hall Theatre
By Charlie Mcbride
Henry Purcell’s baroque opera Dido and Aeneas comes to the Town Hall next week, for one night only, in an exciting new staging from Cork Opera House.
First performed in 1688, the hour-long opera is inspired by Virgil’s tragic story of Queen Dido and her lover, Aeneas, as recounted in his epic poem The Aeneid.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, falls deeply in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas but is then abandoned by him, leading her to despair and death. Purcell’s treatment of the story is among the earliest English operas and is regarded as one of his foremost works.
In Cork Opera House’s production, Dido and Aeneas, is given a stunning new arrangement involving elements of jazz, gypsy and tango and is set in a fantastical Gothic world. Each of the four singers also plays their principal character’s subconscious other self – a concept that heightens the emotional and sexual tension created by the passion of hidden desires. The new orchestration has been created by baroque and contemporary music specialist and violinist, Marja Gaynor for a quartet of multi-instrumentalist musicians.
The production is directed by John O’Brien and during an afternoon break in rehearsals he outlined some of the ideas that fuel the show, beginning with the concept of having the singers taking on dual roles.
“It’s inbuilt in the structure of the opera where Dido’s music is mirrored by the Sorceresses’ music – their music is almost like an anti-Dido,” O’Brien notes. “It was intriguing to imagine one actress playing both parts in a black swan/white swan kind of way or a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing. There’s that idea that it is Dido’s own subconscious that is her downfall rather than external magical forces.”
O’Brien goes on to talk about the distinctive musical flavour of the production: “We have four actor/musicians who are really quite amazing. They’ve memorised the whole score and they are acting through their playing and through how they move. They act sort of like a Greek chorus where they comment on the action and move the story forward but wordlessly. Because of the instrumentation and the players we have, with clarinet and accordion, violin, viola and cello, it opens up the sound world of the piece and there are elements of tango and gypsy and Balkan music there, there are folk elements and also a jazz feel but all of which works with the original baroque music by Purcell.”
The quartet of musicians are Marja Gaynor (strings), who arranged the score, Carolyn Goodwin (winds), Ilse De Ziah (strings) and Piia Pakarinen (accordion).
O’Brien describes their musical credentials: “Marja is originally from Finland but has been in Cork for the last 15 years. She is a great violinist and plays with the Irish Baroque Orchestra but she is equally at home playing on albums by The Frames or gypsy music with the Polskadots so she is a perfect crossover artist. Similarly with Ilse the cellist who plays trad as well as baroque and Carolyn, who as well being a classical clarinetist is also a jazz saxophonist so she has those improvisational skills. All four of them have that so sometimes they are playing exactly the notes that Purcell wrote but the colour of the instruments we have gives it a new flavour, but sometimes they will improvise a little over the tops of the tunes and have fun with them. And that’s something that is true to the original spirit of the work; at the time Purcell wrote it improvisation would have been expected of the musicians and that’s something that has been lost over the years.”
The production also features four exceptional singers in sopranos Cara O’Sullivan, Majella Cullagh and Mary Hegarty, and baritone Simon Morgan. “It’s great that we have four top-notch Irish singers,” O’Brien enthuses. “Our three sopranos have all sung in top opera houses around the world but this is the first time they have all sung together in an opera. Simon is a great up and coming baritone so it’s very exciting for us to do this Irish opera production with an Irish cast.”
Dido and Aeneas plays the Town Hall on Tuesday, 28th August, at 8pm and tickets are €25 / €20.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie