sat 13/07/2024

Dido and Aeneas, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican review – prosthetic passions | reviews, news & interviews

Dido and Aeneas, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican review – prosthetic passions

Dido and Aeneas, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican review – prosthetic passions

Puppetry, Handspring-style, helps give new life to Purcell's tragedy

Caitlin Hulcup and Rowan Pierce, with puppet avatarsall images: Mark Allan

 “War Horse has a lot to answer for,” grumbled, or joked, my neighbour as the white-draped and white-faced puppet of the Queen of Carthage lay crumpled on the floor at the close of Thomas Guthrie’s semi-staged production of Dido and Aeneas. Well, not just War Horse.

Cape Town’s master-puppeteers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones had, with their Handspring Puppet Company, mounted a dozen trail-blazing shows in collaboration with the South African artist William Kentridge before the National Theatre’s equine blockbuster turned their uncannily expressive creations into a global cult.

How odd, but gratifying, to see the Kentridge-Handspring reinvention of puppetry as a weapon of radical theatre during and after the apartheid era in South Africa evolve into a smart way to refresh the conventions of Baroque opera. Guthrie, a singer turned director, has previously enlisted our wooden friends to enrich works such as The Magic Flute and Schubert’s Winterreise. At the Barbican, in a staging which preceded Purcell’s chamber opera (or operatic masque) with a first half that consisted of a newly-devised “funeral for the Queen of Carthage”, the puppets – created by Laura Caldow and Ben Thompson – certainly proved their dramatic worth. But they also set a stiff test for their human partners.

In the manner of the Handspring pioneers, Guthrie has his singer-actors hold and work their (fairly hefty) doubles while they perform. Caitlin Hulcup’s Dido and Ashley Riches’s Aeneas both had – slightly distracting – helpers to share the burden of moving their puppet characters, whereas the fine-toned Rowan Pierce, as Belinda, had to manage on her own. Although the singers coped with this extra task with admirable agility, it may take time – of which such a compact piece has little to spare – before the audience adjusts to the eloquent presence of these ghostly twins. However, Guthrie has realised that, for such a work, the singer-worked puppets can render a vital service. Connected (in every sense) to the singer but still separate entities, they bridge the gap between the intense, visceral emotions conveyed by Purcell’s gloriously subtle score and the alien norms and forms of his genre. Singers can’t aspire to “act” naturalistically in Baroque music-theatre as they would in modern Verdi or Puccini. The puppets, which Guthrie dubs “transitional objects, magical engagers of our imaginations”, paradoxically make the drama more human while the singers flesh it out in sumptuous sound. That said, the opening, “funeral rite” half of the production somewhat underwhelmed on the dramatic front. Dido’s spectral avatar lay in state on a bier (pictured above with Rowan Pierce), showered in red rose petals, while the chorus of the Academy of Ancient Music moved around the stage to deliver a medley of short Purcell pieces in an elegiac vein. In their midst, the instrumentalists of the AAM anchored proceedings with movements from three of Purcell’s ensemble works: a Sonata, Pavan and Chacony, all in G minor.

Puppet-free for now, the principals anticipated the tragedy to come in their tense interaction during the songs – above all, in Pierce and Riches' gorgeous duet “Close thine eyes and sleep secure”. But, if the more theatrical touches failed to interfere with the music in this part, they hardly added all that much either. Directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, the AAM showed with poise and flair how Purcell’s writing dances with extraordinary grace and inventiveness over the chugging bass lines underneath. Hats off, in particular, to the two theorbos of William Carter and Eligio Luis Quinteiro, with their celestial raindrops of sound. 

In Dido and Aeneas itself, the puppets didn’t entirely steal the show. Guthrie filled the stage, keeping the chorus on their toes and ever-mobile. No standing around at Dido’s court. He lent a Broadway-musical air of swagger and fun to the numbers for gangs of sailors and witches with which Purcell breaks up the ecstasy and agony of Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido. The chorus, and minor solo roles, had mini-puppets of their own: more like masks with flowing costumes attached. Bass-baritone Neal Davies brought a lip-smacking, pantomime dame mischief to the part of the Sorceress who conspires to lure Aeneas back to Rome.

The hero himself must play second fiddle here, but Riches’ stalwart baritone had both force and finesse. A late replacement for Christine Rice, Australian mezzo Hulcup gamely made her puppet double live, move, and suffer, while she sang with unerring control and an emotional fluency in no way impeded by her additional job. Make Dido act so vigorously, as the puppet-animator must, and you emphasise her agency as an independent queen who in some sense chooses her fate, not just a passive, lovelorn victim. Guthrie says that he took inspiration from the willed solitude of Elizabeth I. It’s not as if this music, so exquisitely calibrated to the feeling it transmits, needs much help from directorial grand designs. In the end, though, the puppetry did amount to more than gimmickry. Used wisely, it may help cross the lines that divide us from the ritual or ceremonial aspects of music-theatre in this period, even if the score itself can fly across the centuries without a hitch. The business of puppet animation meant, perhaps, that Dido’s dying lament became less of a show-stopper and heart-stopper than usual. The figure was, literally, laid in earth as Hulcup sang her down into the ground. But what we lost in stand-alone lyricism we gained in dramatic and emotional momentum. Strangely enough, the puppets rendered this piece – which can come over as a disconnected set of lovely and brilliant turns – less jerky and wooden than clumsier productions make it feel. Remember me? We will. 

The puppets, which Guthrie dubs 'transitional objects', paradoxically make the drama more human


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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