Artillery Row On Opera The Critics

The original, best and shortest English opera

John Blow, Venus and Adonis; Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (HGO)

HGO: John Blow, Venus and Adonis; Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (The Cockpit, NW8)

However sick you may be of WFH, be warned: office life is full of sharks and reefs, as this timely caution from HGO, formerly Hampstead Garden Opera, was at pains to remind us. And lesson two, which covers both situations, is that you should remember to treat your cleaners with kindness and munificence, since (as everyone knows) they are a) hard to replace, and b) have enormous, uncanny power over your life.

The tricky fellow had set the whole charade

Perhaps not always quite so much as the sanitary operatives of Carthage Inc. had over CEO Dido in HGO’s updating of Henry Purcell’s old opera, written in the 1680s. On closer inspection of the programme it turned out that D was, like, head of the UN or something, but the office environment was unremarkably standard, down to the drinking and copping off that seemed to be the main focus of work, just like in real life.

It’s still hard to see Dido as anything but the original (and still the best) English opera: so concentrated, so powerful, so… short. The brilliantly concise libretto manages to make the double-quick love-story, from hallo to suicide, perfectly believable, as well as bringing at least four characters to life. It’s really a miracle, and the music and drama are robust enough to take pretty much anything thrown at them, from the jazzings of the sometimes inspired lutenist Christina Pluhar to a thousand stagings keen to emphasise its relevance in times of BLM, MeToo, Bilderberg Lizard-Folk (is that still a thing?) and the rest. 

In that context, Jessica Dalton’s staging for HGO was pretty mild, though it didn’t necessarily make the points the programme says it meant to. No problem: it’s all there in Purcell anyway, including the star-weasel dumping excuse wheeled out by Aeneas on Day 2: “Jupiter told me to.” In his defence, there is also the matter of the Sorceress and her “wayward sisters” who engineer the whole thing by sending their “trusty elf” to deliver a fake singing telegram to Aeneas from said god; but the suggestion here was that the tricky fellow had set the whole charade up himself — at which point, enter those office cleaners he’s clearly bribed.

James Beddoe did what he could with the thankless role of love-rat Aeneas

This Sorceress is a great little role — pure wanton concentrated spite. The Spanish mezzo Mercè Bruguera Abelló had a lot of fun with it, digging out the curdled notes in rich and true voice. Her wingers Olivia Carrell and Abbie Ward cackled along, emptied the bins all over the office floor and mucked about on the wheely chairs with great glee, too. James Beddoe did what he could with the thankless role of love-rat Aeneas, without any directorial sympathy to help him out, and Anna-Luise Wagner was Dido’s happy-bunny sidekick Belinda (a Carthaginian name), forever and infuriatingly trying to get her boss to look on the bright side.

But Dido is not one of life’s laughing girls, and Milette Gillow, a poised, soulful and elegant mezzo, incarnated this rather humourless Head Girl type very well. Accompanied only by Jonatan Bougt on a beautifully spare theorbo in her first and last songs (the latter is the famous lament), she held the stage with absolute vocal security and stillness. The harpsichordist Seb Gillot (who hits a very pithy tambourine too, as it turns out) led the band of seven with a lot of style: bouncy, heartfelt, concise, to the point.

Actually, it does vaut le voyage, though be warned Dido is preceded by a somewhat ploddy rendering of John Blow’s slightly earlier Venus and Adonis, a piece which is not nearly as bad as it often sounds. HGO — descended to the verdant plains of Lisson Grove from its habitual Highgate Elysium — has for 30 years been providing such singers (often but not necessarily students at the London conservatories, and frequently before they get spoiled by too much “training”) with their first professional exposure. It is a linchpin of the fringe opera system that actually operates very well in England. Which goes to show something, tbd.

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