At the risk of sounding uncultured, I will admit that this was my first ever opera. At the risk of sounding even more uncultured, I will further admit that my knowledge of opera and its technicalities is, at the most, very surface level. What I do know is that Dido and Aeneas was a beautiful piece whose cast and crew oozed so much talent that it left me so impressed to the point where I find myself almost speechless. From beginning to end it was a showcase of the skills and expertise of Durham Opera Ensemble (DOE), a reverie for the senses.
Stepping into Hild Bede chapel, the atmosphere was immediately set: a deep sense of eminence. Then the chorus, dawned in all black, set the tone for the solemn scenes of love and tragedy that were to unfold. I was struck by the beauty of the singing from the very first note as it filled the chapel, it was sublime.
The chorus was a constant throughout the piece: constantly present on stage and constantly singing stunningly. Each member added such balanced and smooth layers to the collective voice. Leo Zagorac deserves immense praise for his conducting.
Each performer was phenomenal, I was truly amazed by the talent in the room. Every voice was unique and exquisite, the ensemble was cast perfectly.
My personal standout of the night was Ruby Alexander’s Belinda, who demanded attention with her refined vocal performance and unmatched stage presence. Though but a handmaid in the tale, she was truly a queen on stage.
And I greatly enjoyed Georgia Malkin’s wicked Sorcerer. Not afraid to be malicious, she was a truly despicable villain – in the best way, of course. From her first step on stage, you could tell she was there to cause trouble.
I think what drew me to these performances in particular was the extra physical characterisation the actresses brought to their roles, as I found that the style of directing placed heavy emphasis on the singing, at times letting characterisation be swept to the side. This was mostly due to how actors would walk on stage to sing their lines and then walk off to sit by or in the pews (this being off-stage). As a result of this, a lot of character acting was lost in the scene transitions which sometimes seeped into the scenes themselves. Perhaps having a sealed off backstage area would have helped the actors maintain their characterisation throughout their scenes.
At times the piece also verged on feeling a bit stagnant as there was a lack of dynamic movement. I believe this could have been fixed with more imaginative transitions with more characterisation, as well as greater use of the traverse stage. Most of the action took place by the altar which was to the side of the audience, with actors only venturing along the aisle a few times in the final scenes of the show, and I feel this was a missed opportunity. However, when it was used it was used well, highlighting moments of the departure of both love and life.
Despite my few fastidious critiques, I think director Jennifer Lafferty did an excellent job of clearly conveying the source material, and the ending was especially strong with Dido being guided past the audience and off towards the exit, symbolising her exit from this life and the end of the show. It was tragic yet perfect in its simplicity and finality.
The chapel was a superb choice of venue, and its acoustics greatly complimented the voices and heightened the performances by allowing them to surround the audience. However, one minor problem arose from this, namely the fact that each small creak or cough was amplified to a reasonably loud volume. This is happened a few times as actors would sit in the pews and get up to walk on stage throughout the performance, with their movements inevitably making some noise. I think perhaps having the off-stage actors wait somewhere else would have lessened this effect and ultimately made the transitions feel more effortless. However, this is probably a small price to pay for the magic that was being enveloped in so many wonderful voices.
Dido and Aeneas was a joy to watch and listen to, and I will be listening out for the announcement of the next DOE performance. Completely mesmerising, I sat in awe for the whole piece, and can still hear the music playing in my mind.
Featured Image: Durham Opera Ensemble