Four Saints in Three Acts & Dido and Aeneas, ENO, 28 June 2000 (MB)
Were it not for a superbly sung Dido and Aeneas, this evening's opera-come-dance double bill might have proved one of ENO's worst programmes in recent years. This evening was a reminder not just of how terrible some operas composed in the twentieth century are but also how problematic it can be to stage opera and dance together.
Virgil Thomson's Four Saints was first performed in 1933 and had its UK première in 1983. This fifty year gap is not difficult to understand at all, for it is one of the worst operas I have ever heard. It might just be under an hour long, but frankly it is an hour too much. As to the work itself, there are incongruities everywhere: there are not four saints, but seven (including two St Theresa's) and there are not three acts but four. There are supposed to be set numbers for dance, but here the whole work was danced. The opera promises a catchy tune, but instead delivers inanely clichéd writing. The sound of the accordion bellowing somewhere from the orchestra pit only confirmed that this opera is little more than a curiosity, more in keeping with a fairground attraction than an opera house.
One had mercifully hoped that the dance would banish the memory of the music. Regrettably, it seemed to compound it. Here we had actors charging around the stage like Morris Dancers (and clearly dressed as such). I couldn't help but notice that the women all had their bra-straps visibly on show - something which suggested laziness in the dressing department, or a shortage of material to ensure their backs were covered. I'm afraid I found it an obsession. It all seemed symptomatic of a clumsy (and dull) set design which showed different backdrops for each act. In one we had flowers, another stars, and another birds - although they looked more like Messerschmitts dancing through the sky over war-bombed London. It was always a relief when the vast curtain, looking like a crazily written tablet, was pulled across the front of the stage. It at least gave me something to read. With its truncated sentences, repeated words and dismembered order it reminded me of one of Samuel Beckett's prose poems. If this production had any meaning (in the conventional sense) I clearly failed to grasp it. I found it lamentable.
The singers tried their best (and often succeeded), whilst the dancers often seemed content to improvise. There was a serious lack of choreography. This may only have been the world première of this staging, but it seemed to me distinctly under-prepared. During the closing scene a swing is added on stage (at first I thought it a guillotine). There always appeared the very real possibility it was in imminent danger of collapse. It was the only genuine moment of real symbolism in the entire production.
The Dido and Aeneas was a very different matter. The dancing was generally more discrete than in the Thomson, although attempts at humour were surely ill-placed. There was at least a semblance of empathy here with the music. If the set looked better, it was partly because it was shrouded in a cloak of darkness and creeping shadows. The Dido of Mark Morris (looking like Brünnhilde) and the Aeneas of Guillermo Resto (looking more like Samson with his long locks) were often dazzling, but the highlight was Sarah Connolly singing the role of Dido. Hers is a beautiful mezzo voice, and her lament was very moving. Gavin Carr, replacing Riccardo Simonetti, gave a convincingly sung interpretation of Aeneas (although the voice can sound small - no John the Baptist yet).
If the aim of this evening was to showcase the Mark Morris Dance Group it only partly succeeded. During Four Acts one was almost compelled to watch them, but during the Dido one seemed much less aware of their existence on stage. Great music often has this effect, almost physically separating the mind from the on-stage action and concentrating it on that which matters: the panoply of sound. In the end, the music of Purcell (and especially Sarah Connolly's Lament) will be my only memories of this evening.
Four Saints and Dido and Aeneas play July 3rd, 4th and 8th with L'Allegro on June 30th and then on 1st, 5th 6th and 7th of July.
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