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Dido and Aeneas - review

May 18, 2016 Theatre

It’s inventive, from the music to the costuming and most especially the staging. Three sets required? Director Frances Moore’s solution, in a small space with no tech crew or facilities to speak of, is inspired: play it in three rooms! You’ve got to be good to do that, because you risk annoying your audience when you ask them to traipse up and down stairs, and these guys are good.

Dido and Aeneas is a bog-standard love tragedy, made graceful by the baroque splendour of Henry Purcell. Here, it’s enlivened by designer John Foley’s corsets and clownface and really rather fetching haberdashery; and by Alex Taylor’s musical reinterpretation. There’s still a lot of Purcell in it, although there’s also a lot nicked from Gershwin, John Grant and god knows who else. All good fun, which is at odds with the story, but this is one of those operas where you’re not supposed to mind about that: they do not assume you will fall about weeping at the fate of the wretchedly wronged lover.

I admit I was a little surprised at that. Telling a tale of love lost in an intimate setting like The Basement, with some gorgeous music, why wouldn’t you take the chance to wrench our hearts around a little?  That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. The answer is because they’re more intent on musical shenanigans. Alex Taylor, who conducts, sings, acts, plays a few instruments and wears a red leather corset, is precociously clever, but the show could stand to be just a little less about him.

And yet, they do reach high to seduce us with the aesthetics. Dido’s last aria, “Remember Me”, and the response from her handmaidens, is so simple, strong and spellbindingly lovely, I left the theatre happy. Fundamentally, that was down to the singing, for which Amy Jansen as Dido should take a very big bow. Taylor also deserves credit: when it really counts, he nails it. The rest of the cast is also very good, tonally, although their diction is, I’m sorry, crap. They sing in English, but I repeatedly found myself treating the lyrics as if they were being sung in Italian – you know, where you have no idea of the words and just let them wash over you. Charming, sure, but wrong.

There’s a keyboardist who, at one point, wears a onesie; some beautiful sax (tenor and baritone!) and upright bass, and the company has a sparklingly sexy take on all the witch action. If you’re at all interested in opera, Dido and Aeneas should appeal as an intriguingly satisfying entrée to the main course, NZ Opera’s The Magic Flute, which arrives in town next month. And how great that it’s at The Basement!

Dido and Aeneas, to May 21.


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