Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has a special place in our hearts at Opera Atelier. It was one of the company’s first fully staged productions that over the years, in varied iterations, has charted our growth as artists and reflected our evolving creative vision. Early productions featured elaborate period make up and hairstyles, lavish baroque costumes and grand forced-perspective architectural sets. This new production strips away much of that surface décor and leaves us with a vision that both highlights the wild emotional trajectory of the story and points to the underlying environmental conditions that lead to the meeting, uniting and ultimate parting of the two protagonists.
The first known production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas took place in Josias Priest’s School for Girls in London in 1689 and as such the settings would have been fairly improvisational. It is unlikely that the drama was backed by elaborate sets and machinery and one can imagine that the simplicity of the staging added much to the charm and emotional focus of the drama.
The sets for tonight’s offering observe a certain simplicity as well. Most of its scenic elements are elemental in nature; expansive painted cloudscapes, the night sky lit by a brilliant moon, a forest grove and above all, the sea. The sea plays an important role in Dido’s story. It is by sea that Dido flees her homeland and eventually establishes the city of Carthage. Raging seas whipped by Aeolus’ winds (and directed by the wrath of Juno) propel Aeneas onto the shores of Carthage and ultimately, it is that same sea that bears him away, leaving Dido to her tragic end. The sea, in both its benign and malevolent guise, becomes the framing device for this new imagining of Purcell’s miniature masterpiece.
Sometimes a work of art is best set off in a simple frame. You will notice costumes with clean, clear silhouettes, natural makeup and hairstyles and scenes painted with a fairly broad brush. For many years, the design motto at Opera Atelier has been “more is more”, and for many works in our repertoire that motto still applies. But in this version of Dido and Aeneas, taking a “less is more” approach has allowed us to see an old friend with fresh eyes.
- Gerard Gauci
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