Intimate and contrasting staging, Double Bill, Waterperry Opera

Waterperry Opera Festival’ s new double bill of Acis and Galatea billed with Dido and Aeneas shows how effective the intimate staging in the Amphitheater is with a small cast taking different roles in the two operas. 

The Dido and Aeneas is played mainly by fire light and takes a particularly dark interpretation of the opera. There are few light moments, even the love scenes between the lovers is overshwdowed bygkom and smoke, while the emphasis is on the manipulation of the pair by the sorcerer and witches. So when we reach the exquisite ‘When I am laid in earth’ aria, Dido is not just a woman abandoned by her lover as a victim of larger forces beyond her control that threaten her reign as queen and Aeneas is as much a victim as she is. 

Directed by Guy WIthers, every element builds this dark world – the make-up and jewelry are particularly effective – while Dido’s throne and crown are built of twigs that demonstrate a queen whose rule springs from natural and wholesome forces. Bernadette Johns has such a rich sultry voice and plays a Dido with such sympathy but ultimately doomed. Anna Cavaliero as Belinda is a born actress, every emotion is clearly drawn as her crisp clear voice consoles and celebrates her suffering mistress. Keiran Rayner is powerful and sinister as the sorcerer as he directs Dido’s doom motivated ultimately as a sinister power-grab. How the gods feel at being used as cynically as this perhaps portents his ultimate downfall. Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Shakira Tsindos and Michael Bell as the sorcerer’s evil minions and manipulators add to the sense of a dastardly plan in execution. The manifestation of Jove’s “messenger” is particularly effective.

It was as well that the other half of the double bill, Acis and Galatea, came first as it is a much sunnier piece, lyrically musical, a group of painters and poets on a sort of artists’ retreat despite the tragic ending. Here Polyphemus’ attack on Acis, which would appear to come out of nowhere, is given stronger motivation; Damon has a crush on Acis and is dismayed when Acis and Galatea get engaged. He diverts the already angry Polyphemus to writing a love letter to Galatea but Polyphemus’ anger boils over when Acis finds, reads and tears up the letter. This is all delftly directed by Rebecca Meltzer.

Ellie Neate moderates her bright and clear voice to shade particular emotions to play a level-headed Galatea who, rather quickly, submerges her grief at the death of Acis in a return to Art. Thando Mjandana’s rich tenor suits the amiable Acis, slow to anger and whose brief outburst is his downfall when directed at the tyrannical Polyphemus played by Jerome Knox. But it falls to the sly and love-struck Damon, sung by Michael Bell, to drive the drama of the opera by subtle and expressive acting. The small orchestra under Michael Papadopoulos has an authentic period feel with recorder and theorbo supplementing the more traditional orchestral instruments. 

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