Muddle instead of music

Last night, under the heading “Baroque Masterpieces” with D to a double bill of Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The cast was:

Acis & Galatea:
Galatea Taryn Fiebig
Damon Kanen Breen
Acis Henry Choo
Polyphemas Shane Lowrencev

Dido & Aeneas
Belinda Taryn Fiebig
Dido Yvonne Kenny AM
1st Witch Teresa La Rocca
2nd Woman Amy Wilkinson
Sorcerer Kanen Breen
Aeneas Luke Gabbedy

The Orchestra of the Antipodes played and Antony Walker conducted.

Not really my headline, of course, and in fact, so far as the music was concerned, things were reasonable (in the Handel) to good (in the Purcell). I thought some of Antony Walker’s pastoral compound-time numbers in the Handel were on the brisk side. Nor did either Choo (as Acis) or Taryn Fiebig (Galatea) seem to have really found their stylistic groove with Handel. The big stile antico chorus (”Wretched lovers! Fate has past/This sad decree: no joy shall last”) got off to a shaky start.

The muddle was more in the production of Acis and Galatea. I am not a prude (to coin a phrase) but to me the enthusiasm for onstage simulated fellatio – even if tied into the libretto and in reprise of a joke which worked quite well the first time with sniffing a line of coke (though even that’s pretty cheap) – felt like the director casting around aimlessly for something to do. The resort to the written word (”No joy shall last” as a slogan) also excited my suspicion in this direction. The problem probably comes from the almost total abandonment of the pastoral (a difficult genre for modern audiences to inhabit). Instead of happy shepherds and swains with their love dashed out against the stones by the Calibanish monster Polyphemas, there was a kind of sybaritic cocktail set who seemed vaguely transferred from other OA chorus party scenes. There are some long arias – or at least they seemed long when busied up. This was particularly so in the opening few numbers: the story (such as it is) gets moving towards the end and the musical quality also seemed to pick up.

On the strength of last night, the search is still on for a suitable first half opener to Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas – or is it? The Monteverdi Combat between Tancred & Clorinda put on last time was more eloquent, but arguably too slight. But I’m sure that a few years ago Les Arts Florrisants had a much better double bill of D&A with Charpentier’s Actéon. Sure, it’s their idea, but articularly with Antony Walker at the helm, it’s a pity OA didn’t do something like that. It would certainly have strengthened the one moment of dramatic unity between the works, which both involve at some point a fountain, because in this case it really would be “that same fountain” (as in Belinda’s song).

The Purcell remains brilliant. It has the concision and punch which the Handel, in this production, conspicuously lacks. Kanen Breen was simply stupendous (I almost edited this out as a real-estate-agentish cliche superlative) as the sorcerer[or -ess], though I preferred the green body stocking or body paint which that character sported in the previous run of this production to his more Shakespearean-bearded-lady outfit (actually, he reminded me of the protagonist in film called Taxi zum Klo, but that’s another story). Yvonne Kenny brought all her diva-ism to bear in a memorable performance as Dido. D didn’t think much of Aeneas’s costume. I think he was meant to be the aviator-hero (a la WH Auden), but he just looked a bit dorky (it worked better on Angus Wood).

Though Dido’s lament is the opera-queenish moment of this opera (so much so that it is almost possible to feel all that precedes it as just the set up for the situation), my favourite moment is the sailor’s song which gets things moving once Aeneas has resolved to leave:

“Come away, fellow sailors, come away,
Your anchors be weighing.
Time and tide will admit no delaying.
Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning with vows of returning,
But never intending to visit them more.”

The last line (No, never!) is gleefully repeated with a ringing snap on “Never”! The rustic counterpart of Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido, salted with glee, it’s my favourite kind of Purcell song: there’s a similar one at the end of the first half of King Arthur, all about “Harvest Home” and “Hey for the honour of olde England!” These are usually sung with a vaguely Somerset-ish rustic accent (that’s kind of all-purpose) and lots of “arrgh”s from the chorus. Kenneth Williams (or is it Kenneth Horne?) lives!

2 Responses to “Muddle instead of music”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Oh brilliant, the all-green Kanen Breen I remembered wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all. I thought I might have been going mad.

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