Les Noces and Dido and Aeneas

Igor Stavinsky and Henry Purcell
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2007)

Les Noces production photo

Whatever the justification for yoking together these two very different pieces (discussed by J D Atkinson in her review), there is no doubt that they provide a fascinating, if almost schizophrenic, evening.

Eleven years in the planning and undergoing many - and huge - changes in orchestration before settling into its final form as a piece for soloists, chorus, four pianos and percussion, it almost defies categorisation. Called by Stravinsky himself "Russian choreographic scenes" and variously described as a "sung ballet" or "ballet cantata", it was originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great Nijinsky of the Ballets Rousses and Diaghilev told Stravinsky that he was "in love with it".

Opera North (director/choreographer Aletta Collins) present it as a cantata with all the musicians and singers sharing the stage with the dancers. The former take up most of the space and are confined - one might almost say "crammed" - behind a curving fence, in front of which the twelve dancers perform. Above them all hangs a huge moon.

Based on an eclectic collection of Russian wedding rituals, it is divided into four scenes - The Blessing of the Bride, the Blessing of the Bridegroom, The Departure of the Bride from her Parents' House and The Wedding Feast - which merge into each other. In this production it is sung in Russian (without the benefit of surtitles) and the choreography, whilst following the the outline of the scenes, seems to follow the rhythms of the music rather than the text for, apart from the bride and groom, there is no differentiation between the sung characters. This follows Stravinsky's own lack of differentiation for he has the bride's mother sung variously by a mezzo and a tenor.

With no obvious narrative line or textual guidance to follow, the audience has no choice but to surrender to the combination of the music and the movement and a richly rewarding experience it proves to be, occasionally evoking the atmosphere of The Rite of Spring but generally creating its own, at times playful and at times almost threatening.

After a long interval (well, getting four grand pianos off stage is a job in itself, without fitting up a new set!), we move into Purcell's 1689 short opera. There are those wonderful occasions in theatre when everything seems to come together, and, from the moment the six male dancers, as Aeneas' fellow sailors, slid from behind onto the upper level at the rear of the stage, Dido and Aeneas provided us with just such an occasion.

It helps, of course, to have a singer of the quality of Susan Bickley playing Dido. Her voice is a dream and her emotional control absolutely perfect, but she has tremendous support from Amy Freston as Belinda and Lucy Crowe as the unnamed Woman, whilst her arch-foe, the Sorceress, is given genuinely malevolent life by Clarissa Meek, who has her effective supports in the two witches played by Martene Grimson and Louise Poole. And her emergence from what can only be described as a pile of female dancers was a real coup de théâtre.

Aeneas, it has to be said, is not the best male role in opera (but, of course, the opera was written to be eprformed by "the young gentlewomen" of Josias Priest's boading school in Chelsea) but Adam Green gives him a reality, especially when forced to part from Dido, which is not always seen.

Nicholas Kok conducts with a real sensitivity to the work and the Opera North chorus, split between on stage and in the pit, give their usual expressive account.

But great credit to the production team (the same as for Les Noces) of director/choreographer Aletta Collins, set designer Giles Cadle, costume designer Gabrielle Dalton and lighting designer Bruno Poet (joined here by video and projection designer Lorna Heavey) whose understated production works perfectly.

A fascinating and very enjoyable short evening at the opera!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan