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Music review: Dido & Aeneas


State Opera is experimenting with staging a classic opera in a modern venue – the former industrial warehouse that is now Plant 4, Bowden – with this presentation of Henry Purcell’s passionate tale of a consuming love affair.

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The Plant 4 set features a basic raised stage with sandbags on its sides; a solitary chair suggests a throne, while four blue curtains provide a little colour and, when drawn, create a bedchamber.  The metal scaffolding uprights blend in well with the metallic structures in the roof and balconies.

Purcell’s opera – written in the 1680s –  is set in Carthage at the time of the Trojan wars, but this production directed by Nicholas Cannon has been set in contemporary times.

Dido & Aeneas tells the tale of the grieving Queen of Carthage, Dido (played by Bethany Hill), who accepts advice that she should marry Trojan war hero Aeneas (Raphael Wong) because such a partnership is good for the state.

Hill and Wong make a good duo and are convincing in their roles, given that this is an arranged relationship with not much time for the characters to fall in love.

The fresh-faced chorus and the talented small orchestra come from the Elder Conservatorium of Music, and they also perform admirably.  The chorus members make use of the many spaces and levels that Plant 4 offers, with their youth adding a naturalness to the performance.

Bethany Hill as Dido. Photo: Bernard Hull Photography

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell, as the Sorceress plotting Carthage’s destruction, makes a grand entrance and is theatrical. Her costume, however, is not in keeping with the modern clothing of the others; there is a lack of coherence in the design ideas, and this doesn’t help to elucidate the narrative, which is about an ancient time, with references to gods and sorcerers.

While experimentation in all forms of performance is to be applauded, and works need to be challenging for modern audiences, first and foremost the task is to make clear what is happening.

Nonetheless, Plant 4 is an interesting venue for performances and the cabaret setting adds to the experience. Purcell’s music is delightful, and Dido & Aeneas is a pleasant hour of music and song.

State Opera is presenting Dido & Aeneas at Plant 4 Bowden again on October 4 and 7.

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