Opera In Space’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is not your traditional opera. In the same vein as companies such as Punchdrunk (famed for, amongst others, its productions of Faust and The Duchess of Malfi) Opera in Space has made the bold choice to stage this 1680s opera as a promenade piece, using unexplored corners of Peckham’s Bussey Building.
There is a great deal of experimentation with this production, and as such there are some rather exciting moments alongside some less successful innovations. Purcell’s opera, composed for a chamber orchestra, does have some inherent issues for a contemporary audience, particularly from a feminist perspective. Richard Pyros’s adaptation infantilises Dido – more a beguiled schoolgirl fascinated by self-destruction than a widowed warrior queen – in an attempt to understand her apparently dependent nature. Sylvie Gallant plays her with tenderness and charm, and her voice is captivating despite some limitations.
The stand out performance, however, comes from Carleen Ebbs as Belinda. Her charisma and presence match her beautiful vocals, and she also performs well as one of the witches and a bawdy wench. Jean-Sebastian Beauvais (also Musical Director) is strong as the Sorceress’s elf who poses as Mercury, messenger of the Gods, to trick Aeneas into abandoning Dido. He finds a bold physicality, taking risks with the character that certainly pay off. Choreographers Konstantinos Thomaidis and Ito O’Brien have added some lovely touches, including involving members of the audience in a courtly dance in the first act.
There are some rather incongruous changes made, however. Dido’s famous lament is shifted to the start of the show, and there are some curious cuts leaving what would otherwise be a very strong ending a little abrupt. The addition of Erroll Garner’s jazz standard Misty and an extract from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage do not feel entirely necessary despite undoubtedly being crowd-pleasers. The rather crucial Sorceress and her witches are not fully explained, leaving an air of slight bemusement after their first appearance. They plot the downfall of Dido and are of vital importance to the plot, so it is a shame that they were not fully explored.
The design, by Russell Harris, uses the space perfectly. It does not in any way attempt to mask the space the production is using, rather it builds upon it, embracing it. The grove in act two is a particular gem, with real turf and apples on the ground creating the textures and smells of the location as well as the appearance. The audience have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the design, sitting on the grass, moving in amongst the action, meaning the audience get a tactile experience. The S&M-dungeon-come-mass-murderer’s-basement in which the Sorceress is found is another brilliant design, combining taxidermy with blood and drug taking.
The three-piece orchestra, made up of Katie De La Matter, Poppy Walshaw and Eleanor Harrison on the harpsichord, cello and violin, is impressively skilled and provide first-rate accompaniment throughout.
The key success of this show is the way it engages the audience. Although at times the narrative is a little confused, and the staging doesn’t always work, the production grips the audience straight away and keeps you wanting more. Opera in Space make opera accessible to a new audience, keeping the art form vital and alive. Hopefully the company will keep learning, innovating and experimenting. Opera in Space is an exciting company to watch.
Dido and Aeneas was at the Bussey Building in Peckham until 26 January.